Pope Francis travels to Colombia to encourage peace process between government and rebels

(Reuters/Henry Romero)A woman sells flags with the image of Pope Francis outside the Cathedral of Bogota in Bolivar Square, Colombia September 2, 2017.

Pope Francis is expected to arrive in Colombia on Wednesday to urge reconciliation in a country deeply divided over the terms of a peace deal that ended 52 years of civil war between the government and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The pontiff, who himself was instrumental in bringing the peace deal to fruition, will be spending five days in Colombia, to visit the capital Bogota and the cities of Villavicencio, Medellin and Cartagena, Reuters reported.

The pope had reportedly delayed accepting a government and Church invitation to visit the country until a viable peace process was underway. "He had wanted to go for a long time. Now the moment has come," said Vatican spokesman Greg Burke.

Francis had closely followed the peace negotiations and had made at least two phone calls to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in brokering a peace pact with FARC.

The peace deal allowed FARC to introduce its new political party last week and granted amnesty to most of its fighters.

The agreement faced considerable opposition from many Colombians who oppose provisions that guarantee the former rebels representation in congress and billions of dollars in aid. The accord was rejected by voters last fall but the president pushed it through Congress anyway.

Former President Alvaro Uribe, who is currently serving as a senator, expressed concerns that the deal was too lenient on the rebels who were believed to have committed horrendous crimes including killings, kidnappings and extortion.

The country's Catholic bishops are also divided on their support of the deal, but the pope is expected to urge them to put aside their differences during his trip on Sept. 6–10.

"The greatest task of the Church in Colombia now is to help stem the polarization around the peace process between the government and the guerrillas," said Archbishop Octavio Ruiz, a Vatican official and Colombian.

"This is a time for us to accept the grandeur of forgiveness, to leave behind us this dark period of war and blood," he added.

The main theme of the pope's visit will be reconciliation, and it will be the emphasis for the events on Friday in the city of Villavicencio, where the pontiff is expected to listen to testimonials from people who were affected by the violence and then deliver a homily.

Apart from the victims of violence, the prayer meeting will also be attended by former guerrillas who have been integrated into Colombian society for some time and are not part of the recent peace process with FARC.

Burke said that there will be no formal meeting with opposition politicians, FARC, or the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country's second largest insurgent group founded by radical Roman Catholic priests in 1964.

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