By Nelson Bocanegra and Helen Murphy
VILLAVICENCIO/BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters) – Thousands of victims of Colombia’s five-decade war will seek blessings, guidance and a path to forgiveness from Pope Francis on Friday, during his visit to a region that for years has been known as an epicenter of violence.
The Argentine pope has received a rapturous welcome in Colombia, a majority Roman Catholic nation, bringing with him a message of peace and unity as he seeks to strengthen faith and heal the scars of civil war.
In the city of Villavicencio, Francis will hold a prayer meeting with 6,000 survivors of a brutal conflict that has left millions scarred by kidnappings, massacres, rape, land mines and displacement.
He will also bless the Cross of Reconciliation, a plain white memorial to the victims, and hear personal testimonies of those who have suffered.
“There has been too much hatred and vengeance. The solitude of always being at loggerheads has been familiar for decades, and its smell has lingered for a hundred years,” the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics said on Thursday.
“We do not want any type of violence whatsoever to restrict or destroy one more life,” added the pontiff, who delayed visiting Colombia until a peace deal between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels was in effect.
Colombians have suffered from war between right-wing paramilitaries, Marxist rebels, and government forces since 1964. More than 220,000 have been killed and millions more displaced as the war spilled into towns and rural communities.
The 80-year-old Francis will also beatify two victims as martyrs.
He will take the first step to make saints of Pedro Maria Ramirez, a priest who was killed in 1948 during the period of political violence known as “La Violencia,” and Bishop Jesus Emilio Jaramillo, killed in 1989 by the National Liberation Army (ELN) for suspected collaboration with the military.
The pontiff wants his message of reconciliation to resonate with the war victims and he urged his Church to help spread the message. “You are not bureaucrats, nor politicians, you are pastors,” he said, addressing bishops in Bogota.
In Villavicencio – the capital of central Meta province, a vast cattle ranching area which has been a hotbed of paramilitary and rebel violence – Francis will see a destroyed statue of Christ brought from western Choco province for his visit.
The effigy was recovered from a church attacked by the FARC in 2002 in the rain forest village of Bojaya. About 80 people were killed as they sought refuge from rebel bombings inside the humble church.
The plaster figure, without arms or legs, has become an enduring symbol of the bloody war.
Forgiveness is pivotal if Colombia is to forge lasting peace, break cycles of revenge and rebuild once-hostile communities.
But Colombians are deeply polarized as they prepare to receive 7,000 former fighters of the FARC into society and aim to repair divisions from the war.
Many are furious that under last year’s peace deal, FARC leaders accused of kidnapping, displacements and murder will avoid jail sentences and instead may receive seats in congress as members of a civilian political party.
But at least during the pope’s visit, people seem willing to forgive.
“I’ll be up at 3 a.m. to queue. It’s so emotional, just to see him on television makes me tearful,” said Francis Alvarez, a 59-year-old housewife, who hopes to attend the Mass in Villavicencio. “It will consolidate peace in this region that’s been so forgotten.”
(Reporting by Helen Murphy in Bogota and Nelson Bocanegra in Villavicencio, Additional reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Writing by Helen Murphy; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Rosalba O’Brien)