The Argentine pope hopes to use the pulpit of the Vatican, along with his status as one of the region’s most popular sons, to nudge Colombians toward forgiveness.
The Mass celebrated by Francis drew the rapt attention of as many as a million people, according to estimates by the local news media. People began arriving at Simón Bolívar Park in the capital early Thursday, waving flags and chanting ahead of the pope’s arrival. Indigenous leaders from the country’s interior, wearing traditional headdresses and ponchos, also joined the crowd, which included people of all ages.
“I hope to touch Francis’ hand,” said María Concepción Labrador Parra, 90, who has witnessed the last two visits of popes to Colombia. “But I’ll be happy just to receive his blessing.”
Despite the good will the popular pope received personally, he appears to be well aware of the resentment toward the former rebels. He has announced no plans to meet with any representatives of the former rebels on this trip, and he has left them largely unmentioned, focusing his remarks instead on Colombians who were marginalized during the 52-year conflict — women and the poor.
“All of us are necessary to create and form a society,” Francis said during a meeting Thursday morning with President Juan Manuel Santos. “This isn’t just done with the ‘pure blooded’ ones, but rather with everyone. And here is where the greatness of the country lies, in that there is room for all and all are important.”
Colombia’s long conflict left an estimated 220,000 dead as Marxist rebels battled the government and paramilitary groups throughout the country. At least six million people were displaced from their homes.
Though the former rebels have largely held up their end of the bargain — disarming and forming a political party — some critics say that the government has fallen short in providing assistance to them, or even providing water and power to areas where they disarmed. Conservative critics continue to hound Mr. Santos with accusations that the deal let the rebels get away with war crimes.
The president, whose term ends next year, sidestepped the claims of shortcomings in his remarks, instead reminding Colombians of what he said was their duty to forgive.
“It’s not necessary to forgive seven times, but rather 70 times seven,” Mr. Santos said, citing Jesus’ words from the Gospels. “Colombia is the one country in the world where today weapons are being exchanged for words.”
The pope is scheduled to travel Friday to the city of Villavicencio, 77 miles southeast of the capital, to beatify two Catholic clergymen killed during the conflict. He will later tour the cities of Medellín and Cartagena.
Juan de Itukuykuina Tatita, an indigenous leader of the Igna group in southern Colombia, said he hoped that the pope’s visit would solidify the end of a conflict that terrorized members of his native group for generations.
“As indigenous people who have lived this violence, we are in full agreement with the peace process,” he said. “But we need it to be a true peace. A peace which also respects us and our territory.”
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