BOGOTA (Reuters) - Pope Francis arrived in Colombia on Wednesday with a message of unity for a nation deeply divided by a peace deal that ended a five-decade war with Marxist FARC rebels but left many victims of the bloodshed wary of the fraught healing process.
Francis, making his 20th foreign trip since becoming pontiff in 2013 and his fifth to his native Latin America, started his visit in Colombian capital Bogota. He will travel later in the week to the cities of Villavicencio, Medellin and Cartagena.
Greeted at the airport by President Juan Manuel Santos as attendees waved white handkerchiefs, the Argentine pope hopes his presence will help build bridges in a nation torn apart by bitter feuding over a peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Speaking to reporters on the Bogota-bound plane, Francis said the trip was “a bit special because it is being made to help Colombia go forward on its path to peace.”
Francis will encourage reconciliation as Colombians prepare to receive 7,000 former FARC fighters into society and repair divisions after a war that killed more than 220,000 people and displaced millions over five decades.
References to the recent peace deal were immediate. A teenage boy, born in 2004 to vice presidential candidate Clara Rojas when she was held captive in the jungle by the FARC, handed Francis a white porcelain dove as a welcome present.
On his drive to the Vatican Embassy in central Bogota, the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics was mobbed in the ‘pope mobile’ by screaming crowds tossing flowers and holding up children to be kissed.
“Peace is what Colombia has been seeking for a long time and is working to achieve,” the pope said in a video message ahead of his arrival.
“A stable, lasting peace, so that we see and treat each other as brothers, never as enemies.”
The FARC, which began as a peasant revolt in 1964 and battled more than a dozen governments, has formed a political party and now hopes to use words instead of weapons to effect changes in Colombia’s social and economic model.
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 referendum on the deal last year was narrowly rejected, before being later modified and passed by congress.
Trumpet players, singing children and white-clad rappers greeted the pope - wearing a traditional wollen poncho - at the embassy where he urged young people to “keep smiling” and then led the crowd in the Hail Mary prayer.
“Don’t let anyone steal your hope,” he said.
People lined up all day to see the pope pass by, queues stretched around the cathedral in Bogota as residents sought passes for his events, and street vendors sold t-shirts, baseball caps and posters carrying Francis’s image.
“Pope Francis coming to Colombia has to unite the people. We cannot continue to be polarized. We must learn to live in peace and respect our differences,” Lucia Camargo, a pensioner, said as she lined up for a glimpse of the pontiff.
Although most church leaders have voiced support for the accord, some politicians and Catholic bishops have criticized the deal for being too lenient on the guerrillas. The pope is expected to urge them to set aside their differences.
“The visit will leave us a sense of union, of forgiveness,” Bogota Mayor Enrique Penalosa told Reuters. “Colombia is very polarized at the moment. There are many passions, many hatreds.”
Reconciliation will be the emphasis for events on Friday in the city of Villavicencio, south of Bogota, where the pope will listen to testimonials from people whose lives were affected by the violence and then deliver a homily. Victims and former rebels who demobilized prior to the accord will attend.
The pope will not meet FARC leaders or the opposition.
He also had a message of dialogue and forgiveness for neighbouring Venezuela, wracked by months of protests against President Nicolas Maduro, who has tightened his hold on power as an economic crisis has escalated.
As his plane flew over the socialist nation, the pope sent “cordial greetings” in a telegram to Maduro and Venezuelans.
“Praying that all in the nation may promote paths of solidarity, justice and harmony, I willingly invoke upon all of you God’s blessings of peace,” he said.
Aditional reporting by Philip Pullella and Carlos Vargas; Editing by Bill Trott and Rosalba O'Brien