Pope, Catholic Church push rebels, Colombians to reconcile

The rebel commander approached church workers at a remote camp in northern Colombia with an unusual request.

Four former combatants beginning life as civilians had recently given birth, the first children born to women no longer dodging bombs and bullets in the jungle.

"They are waiting to be baptized," he explained.

Would the church provide a priest?

In the nine months since Colombia passed a historic peace accord with the nation's largest rebel group to end Latin America's long-running conflict, the Roman Catholic Church has emerged as a guiding force in bringing rebels back to civilian life and leading a still-bitter nation toward reconciliation. Pope Francis is expected to build on those efforts during this week's trip to the South American country.

Priests are celebrating Mass at the rustic camps where rebels have laid down their arms. Catholic aid workers are helping former guerrillas track down relatives they have not seen in decades. In the rural communities hit hardest by the 53-year conflict, church teams of psychologists and social workers are explaining the peace accord and facilitating encounters with the rebels many mistrust.

"The immediate task is implementing the accords, but the bigger challenge is how to reconcile Colombians," said the Rev. Dario Echeverri, secretary general of the church-led National Conciliation Commission.

Francis has been one of the chief advocates for peace in this deeply Catholic country, urging leaders for and against the agreement to settle their differences. He will lead a prayer for national reconciliation in the city of Villavicencio, where 6,000 victims from around the country are expected to gather. And he will beatify a Colombian bishop killed in 1989 by guerrillas of the National Liberation Army, another leftist rebel group now negotiating peace.

But the pontiff is also likely come face-to-face with profound discord the agreement has sowed even within the church.

"Certain sectors are resistant," said Fernan Gonzalez, coordinator for peace and development with a Jesuit organization in Bogota. "This mixes issues related to both Catholic morality and political positions."

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known by its Spanish acronym FARC, formed in the mid-1960s to mount an armed insurrection to overthrow the system and open the way to redistributing land amid economic inequality.

Much of the FARC has historically been hostile to religion, both over its view that the Catholic Church was a reactionary force backing the Conservative Party during a 10-year civil war known as "La Violencia," or "The Violence," and from the atheism of the rebel group's communist ideology. Dozens of priests were slain and dozens of churches were damaged or destroyed over the years.

"Nearly all of these killings were attributed to leftist guerrillas, particularly the FARC," a 2004 report submitted to the U.S. Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations concluded.

In spite of the bloodshed, the church took a position as a mediating force. During four years of negotiation in Havana leading to last year's accord, priests accompanied victims to Cuba to testify about the atrocities they had endured and advocated for indigenous groups.

Pope Francis himself gave negotiators a strong push when he visited Cuba in 2015, telling them they didn't have the right to abandon peace efforts. He said he would visit Colombia only once an agreement was signed.

In total, the conflict left more than 250,000 people dead, 60,000 missing and millions more displaced — wounds that for many cannot be closed with the generous terms offered to rebels under last year's accord.

A narrow majority of Colombians rejected the agreement in a referendum before it was passed by congress.

"People still think the FARC should pay with jail and blood," said Diego Lerma, a church worker aiding reconciliation efforts.

The first year of the accord's implementation has been marked by spotlight-grabbing achievements like the FARC's disarmament and by the state's glaring failures to bring services to the hard-to-reach communities where the government has historically had little presence and where rebels are beginning a new chapter as civilians. Former guerillas arriving at many of the 26 demobilization zones found little more than fields of mud, and months later many remain living in tents rather than the buildings with running water and electricity that the government promised. Twenty-two former FARC members or their relatives have been killed since the end of hostilities, according to a lawyer for the rebel group now transforming into a political party.

It's in those isolated regions where the Catholic Church nearly always has a parish.

At the FARC transition zone in Vigia del Fuerte, a community along a muddy river reached exclusively by boat, Magaly Manco with the National Conciliation Commission, a non-governmental organization formed by the Episcopal Conference in 1995, leads former combatants in forging life as civilians.

In one exercise, she gives play dough to a group of mostly young men and women who have given up combat fatigues for jeans and jerseys from brands like Nike and asks them to shape it into an image that symbolizes their transition. One forms the clay into a hummingbird. Another depicts a children's playground. One builds a church.

While Marxist in their ideology, many of the rebels remember receiving their first communion as children and going to church with their families. They kept rosaries for protection and prayed when bombs fell.

"I don't think any of us are total atheists," said Elkin Sepulveda, who joined the FARC at 15. "We all have that culture our grandmothers raised us with in the back of our minds. And in the majority of our homes, they were Catholic."

For some church leaders, it wasn't entirely surprising when the rebel commander at Vigia del Fuerte requested the baptisms.

"In removing their uniforms and leaving behind their arms, they are reclaiming their personal history," said Oscar Acevedo, who is leading the National Conciliation Council's workshops at FARC camps. "They recognize their origins are Catholic."

A date was arranged and a makeshift church created.

The young new parents, one still dressed in fatigues, swaddled restless babies on rows of plastic chairs and newly built wooden benches. At the front of the room, a giant table was transformed into an altar. Behind it a black and white illustration of the legendary guerrilla leader Manuel Marulanda — known by his nickname, Sureshot — was pinned to beams holding up a tin roof.

"In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, amen," the priest said, pouring water from a canister over the young children's heads.

"Amen," the children's parents whispered back.

Church workers in other camps have focused on finding lost relatives, utilizing both the power of the internet and parish contacts. The meetings have led to emotional reunions and difficult truths.

Raquel Montano was recently reunited with the brother she had not seen in 23 years and had thought possibly dead. She sometimes showed her three children the only photograph she had of her missing brother, telling them, "He left one day and we don't know what happened."

"We come from an honest, humble, faithful to God family," she said. "To find my brother in the ranks (of the rebels) was painful."

She traveled seven hours to La Paz, where her brother is living with other former rebels in newly constructed one-story concrete homes located along a dirt path that becomes nearly impassable when it rains.

After embracing her brother tightly, assessing his new grey hairs and sunken eyes, she confronted his commander's wife.

"What sort of brother is the FARC giving back to me?" she asked.

"He's not a killer," the woman assured her.

Despite the reunion, Montano's brother isn't heading back to the family's hometown. Not all of their relatives have been as welcoming. Some are not yet ready to speak with him again.

It's a slow process of acceptance Montano hopes will one day lead to healing.

"Colombia has been filled with violence," she said. "If God has forgiven us, how can we not forgive each other?"

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Christine Armario on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/cearmario