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.