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Pope visits former Colombia war zone to preach forgiveness

Pope Francis arrives to celebrate Mass in Villavicencio, Colombia, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. Pope Francis beatified two priests killed during Colombia's years of political violence and guerrilla warfare, declaring them martyrs who died out of hatred for the Catholic faith. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

VILLAVICENCIO, Colombia (AP) — Pope Francis traveled Friday to an area once besieged by leftist rebels to pray with victims of Colombia’s long conflict and urge them to overcome their grief by forgiving their former assailants.

At an open-air Mass in the central city of Villavincencio, Francis praised those who had resisted “the understandable temptation for vengeance” and instead sought out peace. He said their choice in no way legitimized the injustices they suffered, but rather showed a willingness to build a peaceful future together.

“Every effort at peace without sincere commitment to reconciliation is destined to fail,” he warned.

The highlight of his daylong visit was to be the Vatican has termed a “great prayer meeting for national reconciliation,” bringing victims and victimizers together before a poignant symbol of the conflict: a mutilated statue of Christ rescued from a church destroyed in a rebel mortar attack.

It was bound to be a deeply emotional gathering for Francis, who has made reconciliation the central theme of his five-day visit to Colombia after promising to visit the country upon the signing of last year’s peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

The event was drawing thousands of victims from all walks of life: soldiers who lost limbs clearing land mines, mothers whose children were forcibly recruited by the rebels never to be seen again and farmers driven off their land by right-wing paramilitary groups.

Ahead of the event, the former commander of the FARC published a public letter in which he asked Francis for forgiveness.

“Your frequent reminders about the infinite mercy of God move me to beg for your forgiveness for any tear or pain we’ve caused Colombian society or any of its individuals,” wrote Rodrigo Londono, better known by his nom de guerre Timochenko.

The longtime rebel commander, who is undergoing medical treatment in Cuba following a stroke, said he regretted that he was unable to be present for Francis’ visit. Declaring himself a “devout admirer” of the first Latin American pope, he praised Francis’ insistence on the dignity of every human being and outspoken criticism of an economic system in which rich nations loot the riches of poorer ones.

In another sign that the pope’s message of reconciliation may be getting through to the deeply polarized nation, the mayor of Medellin confirmed that President Juan Manuel Santos will pray together Saturday at a Mass in Colombia’s second-largest city with his predecessor and arch-rival, President Alvaro Uribe. Previously the two had refused to appear together at any papal events.

The two former allies split over Santos’ signing of a peace deal with the FARC and their feud has hampered the chances of successful implementation of the accord. Francis has tried to bring the two together, sponsoring a face-to-face meeting at the Vatican last December after Uribe led the opposition that narrowly rejected the original accord in a nationwide referendum.

Among those attending the reconciliation event in Villavicencio was Lucrecia Valencia, who lost her husband and son, as well has her own right arm and left leg, when they were going out for firewood near their home. Her town was for years engulfed by violence and she said she wants the world to know that the country’s peace is fragile. She said the land mine that upended her life in 2009 was likely planted by another rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, which remains active in many parts of the country.

“We’re sick of all this,” the 40-year-old said. “I’m a woman of a good heart. I have nothing to ask for. But I want people to know we don’t want any more war.”

Also on hand was Juan Enrique Montiel, a former paramilitary member, who said that he realized he couldn’t start a new life until he faced his victims.

“We made a lot of victims, so for us to get where we are, being able to walk without fear, as a civilian (it is necessary to confront your victims),” he said.

Presiding over the event will be a mutilated Christ statue rescued from a bombed-out church 15 years ago — perhaps the most powerful reminder of the senseless political violence that left more than 250,000 people dead and millions displaced. Several Afro-Colombian residents of the impoverished town of Bojaya traveled days by boat, plane and bus to bring the modest plaster statue to Villavicencio so it could be blessed by the pope.

The statue is from a church that was hit and destroyed by a FARC mortar when 300 residents had taken shelter there during a three-way firefight between the rebels, army and the paramilitaries. At least 79 people died and 100 were injured in the 2002 attack.

Today the remote town is a model for reconciliation, having overwhelmingly backed President Juan Manuel Santos’ peace plan and even taken the unusual step of welcoming back the FARC, whose leaders have twice visited the town to seek forgiveness and develop projects to benefit the community.

At the start of Friday’s Mass, Francis beatified two priests intimately identified with Colombia’s conflict. The pope declared them martyrs who “shed their blood for the love of the flock to whom they were entrusted.”

The Rev. Pedro Ramirez was murdered in the turbulent days following the 1948 assassination of a leftist firebrand Jorge Eliecer Gaitan — a slaying that marked the start of Colombia’s descent into political violence and the eventual arming of poor farmers excluded by the elite-driven political system. Priests in the town of Armero, in central Colombia, said Ramirez was pulled from the church, stripped naked and attacked with machetes by an angry mob of Gaitan’s followers who accused him of protecting their conservative, landholding enemies.

Bishop Jesus Jaramillo was gunned down in 1989 in the eastern city of Arauca by rebels from the ELN with whom he clashed on theological grounds. The ELN was founded by priests and seminary students inspired by liberation theology, which sought to identify the church with the poor and excluded, and saw in the conservative but charismatic Jaramillo a potential rival for influence among the region’s peasants and workers.

Villavicencio is also a choice location to reflect another of the pope’s concerns on his visit to Colombia: the environment.

Lying on the edge of the Amazon rainforest, the one-time backwater was transformed by an economic boom as the winding down of the conflict and a spike in commodity prices drew oil companies and multinational agricultural interests to areas that were previously off limits. With peace, the land grab is expected to intensify, straining even further Colombia’s delicate environment — one of the world’s most biodiverse, with more bird species than any other country.

Before leaving Francis, who has warned that today’s “structurally perverse” economic system risks turning Earth into an “immense pile of filth,” will plant a tree at the cross of reconciliation as a sign of new life, thus joining the environment with the main theme of his pilgrimage to Colombia.

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