Pope Francis urged on Friday that Colombians skeptical of a peace deal with guerrillas to be open to reconciliation with those who have repented, speaking hours after a top rebel leader asked the pontiff for forgiveness.
“Dear people of Colombia: do not be afraid of asking for forgiveness and offering it,” he said, at an emotional meeting that brought together victims of the 50-year civil war with former guerrilla and paramilitary fighters.
The Argentine pope, leader of the world’s Roman Catholics, is visiting Colombia with a message of national reconciliation, as the country tries to heal the wounds left by the conflict and bitter disagreements over a peace deal agreed last year.
Francis flew to the city of Villavicencio in Meta province, a vast cattle ranching area which was a hotbed of right-wing paramilitary and Marxist guerrilla violence during a conflict with successive governments.
The Pope’s afternoon prayer meeting in Villavicencio with about 6,000 survivors of the brutal conflict was the centerpiece of his five-day trip to overwhelmingly Catholic Colombia.
As he left Villavicencio, he stopped to pray at the Reconciliation Cross, a memorial to survivors and those killed during the war, and planted a tree as a symbol of peace.
The Pope later returned to Bogota where he was greeting by enthusiastic supporters outside the nunciature as he continued to deliver a message of peace and reconciliation.
He travels on Saturday to Medellin, once notorious as the stomping grounds of drug lord Pablo Escobar, a city transformed since his predecessor Pope John Paul visited in 1986.
The Pope will visit a home for children who were victims of violence and Francis will address priests, nuns, seminarians and their families at the La Macarena bullring in Medellin.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, violence between cartels, paramilitary groups and guerrillas raged in the poor “comuna” neighbourhoods on Medellin’s outskirts and the late pontiff was moved to decry drug violence.
Francis is expected to honour the commitment and sacrifice of those who dedicate themselves to religious vocations when he says mass for a crowd expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people near an airport.
The city is now heralded as a model of urban development. It has installed cable cars up the steep Andean slopes that surround it to save working-class residents a punishing climb home and built libraries in neighbourhoods once host to…