Pope Francis Pontiff rallies Colombian leaders, youth for peace

Pope Francis holds an open-air mass Thursday in Colombia and meets with its Nobel Peace Prize-winning president to cheer the country on its march towards reconciliation after a half-century war.

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Pope Francis is in Colombia to give a boost to its peace reconciliation process after 50 years of war play

Pope Francis is in Colombia to give a boost to its peace reconciliation process after 50 years of war

(Colombian Episcopal Conference/AFP)
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Pope Francis holds an open-air mass Thursday in Colombia and meets with its Nobel Peace Prize-winning president to cheer the country on its march towards reconciliation after a half-century war.

On the first full day of his four-city tour, the Argentine pontiff, 80, is scheduled to meet with young people and with President Juan Manuel Santos to discuss his aim of sealing a "complete peace."

Arriving Wednesday at the Vatican mission in Bogota, Francis recited a Hail Mary and a blessing to assembled youths, who responded with a rap and breakdancing.

The South American country of 48 million people is cautiously emerging from decades of war in a contested peace process.

Francis called ahead of his trip for a "stable and lasting peace" in Colombia.

"Continue on the path that you have been brave enough to start, which is called heroism," he told the young people.

"Don't let yourselves be beaten, don't let yourselves be fooled. Do not lose joy. Do not lose hope."

Conflict resolution

Programme of Pope Francis' visit to Colombia from September 6 to 10 play

Programme of Pope Francis' visit to Colombia from September 6 to 10

(AFP)

Francis's trip follows the disarmament of Colombia's biggest rebel group, the FARC, and a ceasefire by the last active guerrilla force, the ELN.

The Colombian conflict erupted in 1964 when those two leftist groups took up arms to fight for rural land rights.

Over the decades it drew in various rebel groups, right-wing paramilitaries and state forces.

The violence has left 260,000 people confirmed dead, 60,000 unaccounted for and seven million displaced.

Peace talks are underway with the ELN, but officials warn that remnants of paramilitaries are still fighting in the jungle for control of the drugs trade.

"I hope there will be a change now that the Holy Father has come," Blanca Nubia Diaz, 69, told AFP in Bogota. Her husband and daughter were killed by paramilitaries.

"I hope that people gain awareness and change, so there will not be so much violence and so many killings in this country."

Divisive peace deal

Despite the pope's blessing, the peace process has been fraught with division.

Critics of the accord with the FARC say the rebels got off too lightly, with amnesties and alternative sentences.

The FARC has transformed into a political party.

Colombians narrowly rejected the FARC peace deal in a referendum last year.

Francis tried unsuccessfully to mediate between Santos and the lead opponent of the accord, conservative leader Alvaro Uribe.

A reworked version of the accord was later pushed through Congress despite Uribe's resistance.

Now Francis "has come for a very special purpose: to push us to take the first step to reconciling with one another," Santos told reporters Wednesday.

But for others, the pope's visit was a reminder of the country's painful historical divisions.

"It's no secret to anyone that priests helped create guerrilla groups in our country," said Ismael Leon, a representative of a victims campaign group.

"So this visit just brings more worries and more doubts."

Big mass

On Thursday Francis will meet with Santos and Catholic leaders.

He will visit the city's Cathedral and give a mass to thousands of worshippers in Simon Bolivar Park.

He will then make daily excursions by plane to the cities of Villavicencio, Medellin and Cartagena.

In Villavicencio, he will beatify two Catholic priests killed during the conflict.

He will hold prayers for national reconciliation with victims of violence, former guerrilla members and ex-military fighters.

The pontiff will also meet with orphans in Medellin, considered the cocaine capital of the world during the reign of 1980s drug-kingpin Pablo Escobar.

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