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Pope Francis Visits Colombia Amid Deep Divisions Over Peace Process


Pope Francis starts a five-day trip to Colombia on Wednesday. He arrives at a historic moment - Colombia's long war against the Marxist guerrilla group known as the FARC has finally ended. And as John Otis reports, Francis will find a country that's deeply divided over the peace process.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: This is the official hymn for the papal visit to Colombia.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish).

OTIS: The song claims that Pope Francis will be received by a united Colombia, but that's a bit of a stretch.

Yes, things in Colombia are looking up. Last year, the government signed a peace treaty with FARC rebels ending 52 years of fighting that killed more than 220,000 people. And on Monday, the government and a smaller rebel group called the ELN announced a bilateral cease-fire. Pope Francis has been a vocal supporter of both efforts and promised to visit Colombia once the FARC peace process had taken hold. That appears to be happening. Over the summer, the FARC guerrillas laid down their weapons.


RODRIGO LONDONO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Last week, the FARC took another major step by launching a left-wing political party. FARC leader Rodrigo Londono made the announcement before thousands of supporters in Bolivar Plaza, which lies next to the Bogota Cathedral.

I visit the cathedral a few days later. A special service is being held in preparation for the arrival of Pope Francis.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Spanish).

OTIS: But many of the faithful bad-mouth the peace process. They complain that during the war, the FARC was deeply involved in drug trafficking and carried out massacres and kidnappings. In fact, voters narrowly rejected the FARC peace treaty in a referendum last October, though the Congress went ahead and ratified the deal.

OSCAR HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Oscar Hernandez, who's waiting in line to enter the cathedral, fears the FARC will take power through the ballot box then set up a narco state or a radical leftist regime like in Cuba or Venezuela.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "It could be catastrophic for the country," he says.


OTIS: But others see hope in the papal visit.

MAURICIO RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Mauricio Rodriguez, who's selling Pope Francis baseball caps outside the cathedral, says his visit could bring the two sides together and keep the peace process from breaking down into new fighting. The Pope's official motto for this trip is demos el primer paso, Spanish for, let's take the first step towards national reconciliation. To that end, the pontiff will hold a prayer meeting, bringing together war victims as well as former FARC guerrillas. He will also celebrate Holy Mass in the cities of Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena. But Colombians don't always listen to papal messages. That was the case in 1986, the last time a pope visited the country.


JOHN PAUL II: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Back then, Pope John Paul II called for Colombia's rebel groups to disarm and for an immediate end to the fighting. Instead, the war ground down for another 30 years. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota.

(SOUNDBITE OF VISIONEERS' "IKE'S MOOD I") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Otis