The Vatican announced Friday that Pope Francis will make a six-day trip to Colombia in September with four cities on his itinerary, almost a year after the government and FARC rebels signed a major peace agreement.
“Accepting the invitation of the President of the Republic and the Colombian bishops, His Holiness the Pope Francis will make an Apostolic Trip to Colombia from 6 to 11 September 2017,” a March 10 communique from the Vatican read.
While the official schedule is expected to be released shortly, the Vatican confirmed that Francis will visit the cities of Bogotá, Villavicencio, Medellín and Cartagena.
The trip will mark the third time Francis has visited his native South America since becoming Pope, with the first taking place in July 2013 when he traveled to Rio de Janiero for World Youth Day. The second tour took place in July 2015, with stops in Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay.
In August 2016 a peace accord between the Colombian government and the country’s largest rebel group, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was finally reached following four years of negotiations in Cuba.
Since 1964, as many as 260,000 people have been killed and millions displaced in the civil war.
According to Human Rights Watch, with more than 6.8 million people forcibly displaced due to the conflict, Colombia has the world’s second largest population of internally displaced people, with Syria in first place.
However, the August agreement was narrowly rejected in a referendum Oct. 2, with many Colombians claiming that it was too lenient on FARC, particularly when it came to kidnapping and drug trafficking.
A revised agreement was signed Nov. 24, and sent to Colombia’s Congress for approval, rather than being submitted to a popular vote. The reformed accord was approved Nov. 30, with revised features including the demand that FARC hand over assets to be used for reparations, a 10 year time limit for the transitional justice system, and FARC rebels’ providing information about their drug trafficking.
In December Pope Francis met with Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón and former president Senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez, at the Vatican, encouraging them to continue working for peace.
When the deal was initially reached, the Pope praised the move, voicing his support “for the goal of attaining the peace and reconciliation of the entire Colombian people, in light of human rights and Christian values, which are at the heart of Latin American culture.”
The Pope’s trip was officially presented in the country March 10 by Bishop Fabio Suescún Mutis, head of Colombia’s military diocese and who is in charge of the preparation committee for the trip.
During presentation, Bishop Suescún said the Pope’s visit “is a moment of grace and joy to dream with the possibility of transforming our country and taking the first step,” according to the Colombian Bishops Conference website.
“The Holy Father is a missionary for reconciliation,” he said. “His presence helps us to discover that yes, it’s possible to re-unite as a nation in order to learn to look at ourselves again with eyes of hope and mercy.”
He pointed to the logo of the trip, which in yellow and white pictures Pope Francis walking next to the thematic phrase “Demos el primer paso,” meaning “Let us take the first step.”
To take the first step, Suescún said, means “to again draw near to Jesus, to meet again the love of our families, to disarm words with our neighbor and to have compassion with those who have suffered.”
According to the Colombian Bishops Conference, after receiving the official confirmation of the Pope’s visit, Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos expressed his joy saying “we will receive (Francs) with open arms and hearts, as a messenger of peace and reconciliation.”
He noted that on many occasions Pope Francis “gave courage and impelled” the peace process in the country, adding that “he is a messenger of love and faith; he’s a forger of bridges and not walls.”
The president pointed to the fact that the Pope’s trip will be made exclusively to Colombia, whereas there are typically multiple countries included in international papal trips.
“To have the Pope with us for four days, to know that he’s traveling exclusively to give a voice of encouragement and faith to Colombians, is a privilege that fills us with gratitude,” Santos said.
The Pope’s visit, he said, is an “encounter with the teachings of Jesus, the encounter among ourselves, as a society, as compatriots, as human beings and as children of God.”
He voiced his hope that the visit would help Colombians to unite around the “building of a more just and equitable country, with peace and more solidarity.”
“We have already begun to prepare and will continue to prepare so that this apostolic journey of Pope Francis in Colombia will bear the greatest of fruits of harmony and unity in our country.”
(This article was updated at 5:06p.m. local time in Rome with the words of Bishop Fabio Suescún Mutis and Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos).
By Elise Harris