Pope Francis visits Columbia to support peace process

Pope Francis set off on Wednesday for Colombia, a country plagued by violence for five decades that has since emerged as a regional leader following a hard-fought peace process with left-wing militias. During Francis' first event of the day Thursday, a man broke through security and threw himself at Francis' feet on the red carpet as the pope arrived at the presidential palace.

One of the gifts he received on the tarmac had particular symbolic significance: a sculpted peace dove offered to him by the young son of a rebel father and politician mother who was taken captive by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in 2002.

The pope will not meet FARC leaders or the opposition.

According to local authorities, an estimated two million people so far have welcomed Francis along the nine-mile pope-mobile route to the residence he's staying in while in Colombia.

"I come as a pilgrim of hope and peace to celebrate with you the faith in our Lord and also to learn from your charity and perseverance in search of peace and harmony", Francis said in a video message this week.

Speaking alongside President Juan Manuel Santos, the Pope called on Colombians to recognize that "real wealth is diversity" and to pursue a "culture of encounter", in which people are at the center of all political, social and economic activity.

Meanwhile, the nation's top drug fugitive, the target of a $5 million manhunt by USA authorities, appealed to the pope to pray that he and his fellow combatants be allowed to lay down their weapons as part of the peace process - a proposal the Colombian government has rejected.

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 half-hour into the flight, Francis told journalists he wanted to "help Colombia in its path of peace".

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Pope Francis is telling Colombia's bishops that they have a unique role to play in helping Colombians heal from a half-century of rebellion, saying they must show a "distinct kind of moral courage" to help Colombians overcome their base instincts of war and fear.

Following his visit to the presidential palace, the pope went on to lead a service in the capital, the first of multiple set to be held in Bogota, Medellin, Cartagena and Villavicencio.

The pope then turned his attention to Venezuela where, he said, "may dialogue happen and may the country rediscover a good stability with the dialogue of all".

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.

And the meeting will be framed by one of the most poignant symbols of the conflict: the mutilated Christ statue that was rescued from a church in the western town of Bojaya after a FARC mortar attack in 2012.

Francis had called ahead of his trip for a "stable and lasting peace" in Colombia. At least four people have been taken away in stretchers.

On the way to Colombia, the papal flight through the Caribbean was rerouted slightly southwards, to avoid the category-5 Hurricane Irma, the strongest Atlantic storm on record.

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


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