Pope urges forgiveness in Colombia after decades of conflict

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BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Pope Francis urged young Colombians on Thursday to take the lead in promoting forgiveness after a half-century of armed conflict, and he demanded the ruling class address the entrenched inequalities that sparked Latin America’s longest-running armed rebellion.

“There has been too much hatred and violence,” Francis told a crowd at Bogota’s presidential palace that included disabled children and soldiers with amputated limbs.

Francis received a raucous welcome on his first full day in Colombia, with young choir members abandoning their positions in the palace courtyard and throwing their arms around him as he arrived. The crowd was equally jubilant at Bogota’s main Plaza Bolivar, where about 22,000 flag-waving Colombians interrupted him repeatedly.

History’s first Latin American pope took the interruptions, protocol hiccups and security breaches in stride, joking with the crowds and relishing in the adoration of one of the continent’s most staunchly Roman Catholic countries.

In his first major speech of his trip, Francis appealed to President Juan Manuel Santos and Colombia’s political, cultural and economic elite to avoid the temptation to seek vengeance as the country emerges from the conflict and works to rebuild. Instead, he said they should commit themselves to “heal wounds, build bridges, strengthen relationships and support one another.”

One year after the government signed a peace accord with rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known by its Spanish acronym FARC, the guns have fallen silent and 7,000 rebels are transitioning back to civilian life. But Colombians remain badly divided over the accord, with conservative opponents seeing it as too generous for the guerrillas who were behind scores of atrocities during the conflict.

In all, the fighting left more than 250,000 people dead, 60,000 missing and millions more displaced.

Citing the most famous work of Colombia’s Nobel laureate, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Francis said Colombians now needed to reconcile.

“The solitude of always being at loggerheads has been familiar for decades, and its smell has lingered for a hundred years,” he said. “We do not want any type of violence whatsoever to restrict or destroy one more life.”

Francis appealed to Colombia’s youth to take the lead in promoting forgiveness, saying young people more than adults are able to “leave behind what has hurt us and look to the future without the burden of hatred.”

“You make us see the wider world which stands before us, the whole of Colombia that wishes to grow and continue its development,” he said.

Looking ahead, Francis insisted that Colombia now needed to enact “just laws” to resolve the structural causes of poverty and inequality to “overcome the conflicts that have torn apart this nation for decades.”

“Let us not forget that inequality is the root of social ills,” he warned.

The FARC formed as a Marxist army in the mid-1960s to overthrow Colombia’s economic and social system and open the way to redistributing land amid gross economic inequalities.

While the first year of the accord’s implementation has seen the FARC disarm, it also has been marked by the state’s failures to bring services to hard-to-reach communities where the government has historically had little presence and where rebels are beginning a new chapter as civilians. Former guerrillas arriving at many of the 26 demobilization zones found little more than fields of mud, and months later many remain living in tents rather than the buildings with running water and electricity that the government promised.

Colombia is the most unequal country in terms of land distribution in Latin America, itself the worst region in the world. Large agricultural holdings of more than 500 hectares represent around 0.4 percent of all farms in Colombia but control more than 67 percent of the productive land, according to an Oxfam report last year.

The peace deal and an earlier land reform are supposed to redistribute the land and compensate victims driven from their homesteads by illegal armed groups. But authorities overseeing the process have been slow to hand out titles, and peasant farmers in far-flung regions face numerous threats asserting their rights. Last year, 59 human rights defenders — many of them land rights activists — were killed yet only a handful of their murders ever solved, according to the United Nations.

President Juan Manuel Santos, who won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the conflict, echoed the pope’s words in his speech, urging Colombians to let go of lingering resentments.

“Silencing the guns is worthless if we remain armed in our hearts,” he told the crowd. “Ending the war is worthless if we still see each other as enemies.”

Francis had a packed day Thursday, meeting with bishops from around the region, including his first encounter with clergy from neighboring Venezuela who are looking for the pope to demand accountability from their country’s socialist government and deliver a message of hope to that nation torn by political and economic turmoil.

He ends the day with an outdoor Mass in Simon Bolivar Park, with hundreds of thousands expected.

The theme of reconciliation wasn’t far from Francis’ mind from the moment he arrived in Bogota on Wednesday to great fanfare.

In a gesture likely to mark the deep symbolism of the trip, he was presented on the tarmac with a commemorative peace dove by a youth who was born in a jungle camp to a guerrilla father and a politician mother after she was taken captive by FARC rebels in 2002. Clara Rojas, now a congresswoman, did not see her son after his birth until she was freed in 2008 when he was 3.

Francis then made his way in the popemobile past thousands of people who had stood for hours waiting to catch a glimpse of the wildly popular pontiff along the 15-kilometer (9-mile) route from the airport to the Vatican Embassy.

With no police line in sight, Francis was practically mobbed by well-wishers, though he seemed to revel in the outpouring of emotion from people showering him with flowers, red-yellow-and-blue Colombian flags and shouts of “Viva Francisco.” He even gave a few high-fives to some youths who got a little too close.

Once at the Nunciature in Bogota, where Francis will sleep every night, he delivered his first public remarks to a group of young people battling drug addiction, urging them never to lose “happiness and hope.”

It was a message that resonated with Angie Albanil, who spent part of her teenage years on the streets of Bogota but now is getting back on her feet as part of a church-backed group that performed rap and traditional cumbia music for the pontiff.

“The ills that have spread in society, we’re the ones who have to overcome them with respect for people who think differently,” she said in a prepared remarks read to the pope upon his arrival. “We’re the ones who have to build a society in which we all fit.”