Pope Francis opens Colombia trip hoping to encourage peace

Pope Francis was welcomed to Colombia on Wednesday in the hope of healing the wounds and divisions left by the region’s longest-running armed conflict.

Jubilant masses flooded the 9-mile road into the country’s capital, Bogota, hoping to see Francis’ white popemobile. The pope embraced the flower-tossing crowd, as his security detail struggled to keep the people away without police support, and even gave high-fives to several children who managed to get close enough.

Argentina-born Francis – bearing the brunt of being the first pope from Latin America – was said to be glad to be back in Colombia, a state he visited first after being ordained as a priest and where he is to spend five days. For Colombia, this is the first papal visit since 1986.

Hope will be a major theme of the visit as the pope will try to persuade Colombians to come together following five decades of armed rebellion that left more than 250,000 people dead, 60,000 missing and millions displaced.

In his first day’s public remarks, Francis pleaded with Colombians gathered outside the Vatican Embassy, saying “Don’t ever lose happiness and hope.”

Hosffman Ospino, a Colombian theologian at Boston College, told the New York Times that “It’s dangerous ground for Pope Francis” because “half of the country disagrees with the peace process.”

“One of the challenges to understand the dynamic here is the polarization the conflict left behind,” he added.

Francis was expected to address Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos and other politicians Thursday, followed by a Mass in Bogota’s Simon Bolivar park, encouraging Colombian political elites to address the issue of social and economic disparities that fueled the civil war and urge the people to balance the need for justice with mercy.

Santos so far has spent most of his presidency on the peace arrangement reached last year with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – or FARC – the militant left-wing rebels that had fought against the government since the 1960s.

Despite the success of reaching a peace agreement and stopping the bloodshed, it also opened divisions in the society between those willing to forgive the horrors of the FARC and those who claim that the government is giving too many concessions to the group, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The Colombian President thanked Francis for supporting negotiators at troubling moments during the four-year negotiations with the guerrilla group and hoped his visit would inspire the ordinary people to commit to peace.

“Peace needs a solid foundation, and reconciliation is one of those pillars that we hopefully we will not only plant but also strengthen,” Santos said.

The highlight of Francis’ trip will come Friday as he will meet and pray together with the victims of Colombia’s civil war and former militants in Villavicencio, a city south of Bogota where the FARC held territories.

He will also beatify two priests murdered during the years of warfare by the rebels and will declare them martyrs who were targeted because of hatred for the Roman Catholic Church.

Francis is the third pope to visit the country after Pope Paul VI in 1968 and St. John Paul II in 1986. Previous spiritual leaders also tried to facilitate peace in Colombia and urged the politicians to address the societal problems that turned the country into one of the most unequal countries in the region.

The pope is expected to remain focused on Colombia throughout the trip, possibly avoiding commenting on any issues in other Latin American countries, including Venezuela. According to the L.A. Times, it is unlikely Francis will make a comment about the violence in Venezuela, propagated by the government, that has left at least 130 people dead.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.