BOGOTA, Colombia – Pope Francis opens the first full day in his Colombia visit on Thursday with messages to political leaders and citizens alike encouraging all to rally behind a peace process seeking an end for Latin America’s longest-running conflict and to address the inequalities that fueled it.
Francis will kick off the day with a meeting with President Juan Manuel Santos at the presidential palace, where he is likely to call for a building of bridges among elites bitterly divided by last year’s peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
It will be followed in the afternoon by an outdoor Mass in Simon Bolivar Park that is expected to be attended by hundreds of thousands of worshippers in one of Latin America’s most-fervently Roman Catholic nations.
In between, he is to meet with bishops from around the region, including his first encounter with clergy from neighboring Venezuela, who are looking for the pope to demand accountability from their country’s socialist government and deliver a message of hope to a nation torn by political and economic turmoil.
His 20th trip abroad as pope, Francis’ five-day visit to Colombia is a highly emotional one, fulfilling a promise he made to government and FARC negotiators when he visited Cuba in 2015 as negotiations between the two dragged on in Havana.
Back then, he appealed to both sides not to let the historic opportunity for peace slip by. But now that the deal is signed, the guns silenced and 7,000 rebels are transitioning back to civilian life, Colombians face the even more difficult challenge of coming together and eradicating the social disparities at the root of the half-century conflict.
Santos, the winner last year of the Nobel Peace Prize, offered thanks on Wednesday for Pope Francis pushing negotiators during difficult moments of the four-year talks. He expressed hope the pontiff’s visit will inspire Colombians to take the next step and definitively put behind them the long decades of political violence that left 220,000 dead and 7 million internally displaced.
“Peace needs a solid foundation, and reconciliation is one of those pillars that we hopefully we will not only plant but also strengthen,” Santos told reporters.
The theme of reconciliation wasn’t far from Francis’ mind from the moment he arrived in Bogota late Wednesday afternoon to great fanfare.
In a gesture likely to mark the deep symbolism of the trip, he was presented on the tarmac with a commemorative peace dove by a youth who was born in a jungle camp to a guerrilla father and a politician mother after she was taken captive by FARC rebels in 2002. Clara Rojas, now a congresswoman, did not see her son again until she was rescued in 2008 when he was 3.
Francis then made his way in the popemobile past thousands of people who had stood for hours waiting to catch a glimpse of the wildly popular pontiff along the 15-kilometer (9-mile) route from the airport to the Vatican’s embassy.
With no police line in sight, Francis was practically mobbed by well-wishers, though he seemed to revel in the outpouring of emotion from people showering him with flowers, red-yellow-and-blue Colombian flags and shouts of “Viva Francisco.” He even gave a few high-fives to some youths who got a little too close.
Once at the Nunciature in Bogota, where Francis will sleep every night, he delivered his first public remarks to a group of young people battling drug addiction, urging them not to ever lose “happiness and hope.”
It was a message that resonated with Angie Albanil, who spent part of her teenage years on the streets of Bogota but now is getting back on her feet as part of a church-backed group that performed rap and traditional cumbia music for the pontiff.
“The ills that have spread in society, we’re the ones who have to overcome them with respect for people who think differently,” she said in a prepared remarks read to the pope upon his arrival. “We’re the ones who have to build a society in which we all fit.”
Associated Press writers Cesar Garcia and Juan Zamorano contributed to this report.