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Priests stand up for victims during Colombia peace talks

Catholic priests have ensured the voices of the victims of Colombia’s civil war have been heard at peace talks in Cuba

Colombia’s Catholic Church has worked to ensure that peace talks to end their country’s decades-long war are not just a dialogue between those who have fired weapons at each other.

The Church has made sure that the voices of victims have been heard at the Havana talks between the government and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

The bishops’ conference chose 60 representative victims — what Archbishop Luis Castro Quiroga of Tunja called “a drop in the sea” of some 8 million victims — and accompanied them in groups of 12 to Havana. Archbishop Castro and other Church officials helped prepare them to make presentations at the negotiating table and ensured that they felt welcomed by negotiators.

“The government and the guerrillas heard the victims speak with clarity and energy. It was a positive experience for the victims as well, for they all went with their hearts filled with bitterness, yet they were able to express all that they had lived and felt, and they asked for an explanation of what happened in their situation. At the same time, each victim had the possibility to hear 11 other victims and to realise that they weren’t the only ones in the world who suffered. Some also realised that there were others who suffered even worse; they could relate to their situation. But at the end, all could begin to move toward forgiveness,” Archbishop Castro, president of the Colombian bishops’ conference, told Catholic News Service.

The archbishop recalled one victim who testified about how the guerrillas had killed several members of her family. Afterward, in what the archbishop said was a very emotional encounter, a FARC commander asked her for forgiveness.
“For her, it was a liberating moment because she quit being a victim and became a survivor, someone who could look toward the future in a more positive way,” said the archbishop.

The bishops also have tried to maintain what Castro calls “a pastoral presence” in the talks, both with the two sides and the mediators. And they try to interpret the negotiations to the faithful inside Colombia.

“That’s not easy, because it’s a difficult process to understand. And we have to recognise that the Church is not united about this. Many in the Church are against the peace process,” Archbishop Castro said. “So we have some internal work within the Church to do. There are still some bishops who are not convinced of this. We have big discussions about this in the episcopal conference.”

He went on to fault the government of President Juan Manuel Santos for not explaining the process well to the general public, which will have to approve any agreement in a referendum.

“I have said to the government and to those at the negotiating table that they need a proper pedagogy of explaining this process to the people. It’s a complicated process, and a lot of things are invented to sabotage it,” he told CNS. “For example, one day the news came out that they had agreed in Havana that each guerrilla who demobilised would get 2.5 million pesos every month (about £545). Not even a fifth of that is true, but everyone got angry. It was broadcast widely by the communications media, especially those that are opposed to the peace process. This shows how the government needs a clear and simple way to present a popular version to the people.”

The current talks began in Oslo, Norway, in 2012, and are the fourth attempt in 30 years to end the war, which has been going on for more than half a century. Norway and Cuba are mediating the talks.


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