Can the Pope Bridge Colombia's Divide Over FARC?

Francis’s message of forgiveness has not come with an explicit endorsement of the peace deal.

Plastic covered statues of Pope Francis stand for sale at a shop in Bogota, Colombia.
Plastic covered statues of Pope Francis stand for sale at a shop in Bogota, Colombia. (Fernando Vergara / AP)

On the first day of Pope Francis’s visit in Bogota, Colombia, he was met at the airport by President Juan Manuel Santos and a swarm of followers waving white handkerchiefs. On the tarmac, the pope was handed a white dove by a teenager, the son of Clara Rojas, a former vice presidential candidate who was held captive by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for six years. It was a deeply symbolic moment, and a theme the pope is expected to take around the country during his five-day trip, the first papal visit to Colombia in 30 years.

“The solitude of always being at loggerheads has been familiar for decades, and its smell has lingered for a hundred years,” Francis later said, referencing Colombia’s most famous author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and his most famous book, One Hundred Years of Solitude. “We do not want any type of violence whatsoever to restrict or destroy one more life.”

Francis’s message of forgiveness comes at a time when the country, even its clergy, is deeply divided over the peace deal with FARC. The peace process was narrowly rejected by the public last year, then forced through Congress by Santos. Many people—and because 70 percent of Colombia is Catholic, many Catholic people—still believe the deal was too lenient on FARC leaders because the group kidnapped, killed, and planted land mines across the country in its brutal civil war. The pope has been a major supporter of peace, and he refused to visit until the deal was signed. But even as he speaks publicly about the need to heal, the Catholic Church still has not explicitly endorsed the peace deal. It is a sign of how deeply the 50-year war, which killed some 220,000 people, has polarized Colombians, and possibly a sign of the church’s waning influence, even in bastions of strong support.

Last September, before the vote, the FARC held a conference to plan how its 7,000 fighters would reintegrate. A week later, Santos and FARC’s leader, Rodrigo Londoño, shook hands in the coastal city of Cartagena and signed the peace deal in a symbolic ceremony. The New York Times called it an “ image that generations of Colombians had yearned to see on their soil: A sitting president shaking the hands of the very rebel leader whom government forces had once hunted in the mountains … .” Nearly all major polls had indicated mass approval. But after a summer rife with international political surprises—first with then-candidate Donald Trump securing the GOP nomination in the U.S., and a month later with Britain voting to leave the European Union—last October Colombians voted against the peace deal by less than 1 percent, with 60 percent of the country abstaining. It was a staggering moment—and raised worries FARC would go back to the jungle and resume the war.

The divide pitted Santos, a liberal and a Catholic, against his predecessor, former-President Álvaro Uribe, a far-right leader, and fellow Catholic, who is now a senator. And in a country where many voters are often nonpartisan, the peace deal transgressed normal political and religious lines.

“People still think the FARC should pay with jail and blood,” Diego Lerma, a church worker helping with the peace deal, told The Washington Post.

“The pope may forgive them,” Helena González, whose nephew’s leg was torn off by a mine planted by FARC, told The New York Times, “but in my heart I don’t forgive them.”

The peace deal called for FARC rebels to abandon their jungle encampments for 26 “concentrations zones,” which were meant to be the first stage of transition for guerrillas back to civilian life. Under the plan, the FARC also agreed to hand over its funds and weapons. The most controversial part of the deal, however, granted amnesty to most rank-and-file soldiers. There would be a special tribunal to judge some top-and mid-level leaders for war crimes, but their sentences would be greatly reduced. For many Colombians, the thought of FARC leaders getting off with community service after planting land mines, detonating bombs in cities, aiding the drug-trafficking industry, and kidnapping citizens, was too much to forgive and forget. After the people voted down the peace deal, Santos pushed it through Congress. Since then, much of the requirements have been met. The FARC handed over 8,000 weapons, its bank accounts, and has largely left the jungle. Last week, FARC leaders established their own political party, which under the deal’s guidelines guarantees them 10 unelected spots in the country’s Congress. They swapped their crossed rifle emblem for a rose, but chose to keep their acronym, something that stirred controversy and set off another round of denunciations from Uribe’s supporters.

The divide between Uribe and Santos is so great that even after the two made a trip in December to the Vatican, at the pope’s request, their personal divide and that between their supporters seemed unchanged. “Your Holiness,” Uribe wrote in a public letter before the pope’s visit, “we all want peace, but we have to build it with legality, with determination to prevent and punish the violence that sows despair and distances us from the word of God.”

For such an active role as the pope has played, it is curious why he and his church have not explicitly endorsed the peace deal—especially given the trip’s theme: “Let us take the first step.” In political matters less controversial among its parishioners, the Catholic Church has acted as intermediary, like with the truce pact among El Salvadoran gangs. It even played a role in pushing the U.S. and Cuba to resume friendly relations. But with others issues that are more politically controversial among its followers, like with FARC, and with Venezuela (where the pope also has not taken a strong stance) the Catholic Church has opted for official neutrality. Last summer, as the peace deal vote neared, the Episcopal Conference, the Church’s highest authority in Colombia, released a letter saying it would not endorse any result, but instead urged “people to take part in the vote ... in a responsible manner with an informed vote and with their conscience.” But such bland a statement riled some Catholic clergy, and, shortly afterward, a prominent archbishop in Colombia urged “every honest citizen” to vote in favor of the peace deal.

Part of the Catholic Church’s hesitance to take a firm stance on one side, Andrew Chesnut, chair of Catholic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, told me, is clearly politics. In Colombia, Protestant religions, and particularly Christian Evangelicals, are some of the fastest-growing faiths. Evangelicals were also some of the loudest critics of the peace deal, and there seems to be some hesitancy within the church to isolate conservative Catholics and Evangelicals together around such an emotional subject. It’s partly why, Chesnut told me, the pope will probably continue to make vague references to supporting the deal, but not endorse it outright. It is also an indication of the church’s waning power, even in staunchly Catholic countries. These papal visits, Chesnut told me, “don’t have the same power to effect lasting change as they used to.”

But while he may not be able to heal Colombia’s deep divid over the FARC, the pope’s visits still seem to have some power.

As the pope touched down in Colombia, one of the country’s largest drug gangs, the Gulf Clan, posted a video directed at the pope saying it wishes to submit itself to justice. Days before that, the ELN, the other main guerrilla group in Colombia, reached a ceasefire with the government. That deal had been in the works for some time, but it was enough for Santos to call it the “first miracle” of the pope’s visit.