(Vatican Radio) Pope Francis is bringing a message of peace and reconciliation to Colombia this week, as he meets people in the cities of Villavicencio, Medellin, Cartagena and the capital Bogotà.
Yet, despite a peace accord with the main rebel group, Colombia remains a deeply divided nation, where the scars of over half a century of civil war affect most families, parishes and communities.
Clare Dixon is head of the Latin America desk for CAFOD, the London-based Catholic Agency for Overseas Development.
She talked to Philippa Hitchen about the conflict in Colombia and about the way that Pope Francis is bringing vital signs of support to those seeking to build a sustainable peace in the country…
Dixon says that despite the peace accords with the FARC last year there is “a tremendous problem of polarisation”, While there are some hopeful signs, she notes, with the other main rebel group (ELN) entering into negotiations with the government, the problem is now that areas that have been cleared by FARC fighters are rapidly being taken over by others paramilitary groups.
Victims in rural areas
Speaking about last year’s referendum which narrowly rejected the peace accords, Dixon says people in the cities have largely been free of violence, which goes on in the countryside, so they voted no. In rural areas, on the other hand, she says people were in favour of the accords, because “they’re the ones at the sharp end”, the victims of massacres and the ones who’re being displaced from their lands.
Land exploitation at root of conflict
Commenting on the pope’s concern for environmental issues in Colombia, Dixon says this is linked to the way parts of the Amazon basin have been exploited, in contrast with the message of the encyclical ‘Laudato SI’ on protecting our common home. She says it’s important that Colombia’s leaders take to heart that message about “not putting profit before people” because the country’s current economic model is based on exploitation of the rainforest, through mining and extractive industries, the very issues of land, she says, which have been at the root of the conflict.
Afro-Colombians remain poorest
In Cartagena, Dixon says, the pope will be bringing comfort to victims of conflict by saying Mass in the church of St Peter Claver, patron saint of African slaves. Such problems are still a reality, she says, as Afro-Colombian descendants are the poorest of the poor and were victimized during the war.
Internally Displaced People
Noting that the pope is beatifying a bishop and a priest who were direct victims of violence in Colombia, Dixon says the Church has been working on local peace initiatives since the realities of different regions are very varied. She says the Church was the first to talk about the problem of internally displaced people, which continues to be a huge problem. Before the crisis in Syria erupted, she recalls that Colombia had some seven million IDPs, the largest number of displaced people in the world.