Pope Francis set off on Wednesday for Colombia, a country plagued by violence for five decades that has since emerged as a regional leader following a hard-fought peace process with left-wing militias.
A temporary ceasefire was agreed on Monday with the National Liberation Army (ELN), while the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) disarmed and disbanded in June.
“I come as a pilgrim of hope and peace to celebrate with you the faith in our Lord and also to learn from your charity and perseverance in search of peace and harmony,” Francis said in a video message this week.
The motto of the September 6-11 trip, which will see the pontiff travel to four different cities and is expected to attract total crowds of some 4 million people, is “take the first step,” an invitation to bury the hatchet.
On the way to Colombia, the papal flight through the Caribbean was rerouted slightly southwards, to avoid the category-5 Hurricane Irma, the strongest Atlantic storm on record.
Vatican spokeswoman Paloma Garcia Ovejero said the plane was going to fly over Barbados, Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago, whereas it was previously scheduled to pass over Puerto Rico.
President Juan Manuel Santos, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 for his reconciliation efforts, told Italy’s Il Messaggero newspaper that the visit would “motivate [Colombians] to continue on the path of reconciliation.”
Peace in the country remains fragile, as FARC’s demise may lead other violent groups to take control of drug trafficking, and there are fears of revenge attacks on former rebels.
At the start of his trip, Francis also mentioned Colombia’s neighbour Venezuela, wracked by violent clashes between the opposition and President Nicolas Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian forces.
“I ask you to pray also for Venezuela, so that there may be dialogue and the country may regain a good stability through dialogue with all,” Francis told journalists, as quoted by the ANSA news agency.
In Colombia, at least 220,000 people died in an armed conflict between 1958 and 2012, which pitted left-wing militias against the military, police and right-wing paramilitaries, according to Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory.
Almost 7 million Colombians were forced to leave their homes due to the conflict, according to a UN report last year on internally displaced people.