BOGOTA, (Reuters) – Pope Francis arrived in Colombia on Wednesday with a message of unity for a nation deeply divided by a peace deal that ended a five-decade war with Marxist FARC rebels but left many victims of the bloodshed wary of the fraught healing process.
Francis, making his 20th foreign trip since becoming pontiff in 2013 and his fifth to his native Latin America, started his visit in Colombian capital Bogota. He will travel later in the week to the cities of Villavicencio, Medellin and Cartagena.
Greeted at the airport by President Juan Manuel Santos as attendees waved white handkerchiefs, the Argentine pope hopes his presence will help build bridges in a nation torn apart by bitter feuding over a peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Speaking to reporters on the Bogota-bound plane, Francis said the trip was “a bit special because it is being made to help Colombia go forward on its path to peace.”
Francis will encourage reconciliation as Colombians prepare to receive 7,000 former FARC fighters into society and repair divisions after a war that killed more than 220,000 people and displaced millions over five decades.
References to the recent peace deal were immediate.
A teenage boy, born in 2004 to vice presidential candidate Clara Rojas when she was held captive in the jungle by the FARC, handed Francis a white porcelain dove as a welcome present.
On his drive to the Vatican Embassy in central Bogota, the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics was mobbed in the ‘pope mobile’ by screaming crowds tossing flowers and holding up children to be kissed.
“Peace is what Colombia has been seeking for a long time and is working to achieve,” the pope said in a video message ahead of his arrival.
“A stable, lasting peace, so that we see and treat each other as brothers, never as enemies.”
The FARC, which began as a peasant revolt in 1964 and battled more than a dozen governments, has formed a political party and now hopes to use words instead of weapons to effect changes in Colombia’s social and economic model.
But many Colombians are furious that the 2016 peace deal with the government granted fighters amnesty and some will be rewarded with seats in congress.
A referendum on the deal last year was narrowly rejected, before being later modified and passed by congress.