Pope Francis begins Colombia visit

Pope Francis begins Colombia visit

On Wednesday, Pope Francis embarked on a five-day trip to Colombia, but his plane's flight path from Rome to Bogotã placed him right in the middle of Hurricane Irma's path.

Francis was expected to address Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos and other politicians Thursday, followed by a Mass in Bogota's Simon Bolivar park, encouraging Colombian political elites to address the issue of social and economic disparities that fueled the civil war and urge the people to balance the need for justice with mercy.

A year after the Colombian government signed the peace accord with the FARC, the nation remains bitterly divided over the terms of the deal even as guerrillas have laid down their arms and begun returning to civilian life.

Once the welcoming ceremony was concluded, Francisco boarded the pope-mobile for the 15 km trip to the apostolic nunciature, where he would spend the night.

"Peace needs a solid foundation, and reconciliation is one of those pillars that we hopefully we will not only plant but also strengthen", Santos said. Upon his arrival in Colombia Wednesday, the pope met with victims of the 52-year conflict between the government and the FARC rebels. "I pray for you, for the present and for the future of Colombia".

Francis tried unsuccessfully to mediate between Santos and the lead opponent of the accord, conservative leader Alvaro Uribe.

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The pope then turned his attention to Venezuela where, he said, "may dialogue happen and may the country rediscover a good stability with the dialogue of all".

Francis will beatify two Colombian priests killed during decades of guerrilla warfare, declaring them martyrs who were killed out of hatred for the Catholic faith. Some 300 people were sheltering in the church when it was hit during a three-way firefight between FARC rebels, right-wing militias and the army.

The South American country of 48 million people is cautiously emerging from decades of war in a contested peace process.

In a speech Thursday at the residence of Bogota's archbishop, Francis urged Colombia's 130 bishops to give their flock the courage "in taking the first step towards definitive peace and reconciliation, towards abdicating the method of violence and overcoming the inequalities at the root of so much suffering".

Francis is the third pope to visit the country after Pope Paul VI in 1968 and St. John Paul II in 1986.

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