BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Pope Francis is doing his part to unite Colombians divided by a peace deal with leftist rebels by sponsoring a surprise meeting on Friday between President Juan Manuel Santos and his harshest critic.
The government said the meeting at the Vatican between Santos and his right-wing predecessor in the presidency, Alvaro Uribe, came at Francis' request.
"We celebrate this new opportunity for dialogue," Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo said. "Polarization doesn't help peace; radicalism doesn't help peace."
Uribe, the country's most-popular politician, led the campaign against Santos' peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia that resulted in in the deal's shock rejection in an October referendum. Santos then introduced several changes to appease his critics and even sat down for a meeting with Uribe for the first time in six years but still failed to win his former boss' support when the revised accord was ratified this month by congress.
Earlier on Thursday, Uribe excused himself from a debate in the Senate, saying he had to rush to Rome to attend a last-minute request for a meeting with the pontiff that came in a phone call from Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican's secretary of state. He said timing was tight and he wasn't sure he could arrive, so he accepted a Vatican-chartered private flight.
There was no immediate comment from the Vatican.
Santos, who is on a tour of European capitals after receiving this year's Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, already was scheduled to meet with Francis on Friday and receive a peace medal at the basilica in Assisi from Franciscan monks on Saturday.
Santos was defense minister under Uribe, when they joined forces with the U.S. to beat back the FARC rebels. Uribe helped elect him president, but the two angrily split shortly after Santos took office in 2010 and Uribe accused his former ally of betraying his law-and-order agenda by seeking negotiations with the rebels to end Colombia's half-century conflict.
There have been attempts in the past to bring the two men together, including one last year by the Obama administration, and there is no indication the Vatican can succeed where others have failed.
Uribe said he was attending the meeting out of respect for the first Latin American pope. He gave no indication that he was ready to make amends with Santos or drop his argument that the accord promotes impunity by sparing rebel commanders time in jail and instead awarding them seats in congress.
Still, the Vatican has considerable leverage in the staunchly Roman Catholic country, especially among Uribe's conservative base, and the pope has been careful not to appear to be taking sides in the peace process.
Although Parolin delivered a Mass at the September signing ceremony that Uribe had protested, the Vatican rejected a government invitation to serve on a panel naming judges to special peace tribunals that are to judge war crimes by both rebels and state security forces. The pope has also held off traveling to Colombia until the peace process is complete, although Santos has said he expects Francis to visit in early 2017.