VILLAVICENCIO, Colombia (AP) — Pope Francis brought together thousands of victims of Colombia's half-century-long conflict with their former victimizers, presiding over a prayer for reconciliation Friday in hopes of solidifying the country's peace process and healing still-fresh wounds.
In the highlight of his Colombia pilgrimage, Francis flew into an area once besieged by leftist rebels to pray with victims and urge them to overcome their grief by forgiving their assailants. And he urged the ex-fighters to have the courage to seek that forgiveness, saying peace will fail unless both sides reconcile.
Looming large over the ceremony in the central city of Villavicencio was a poignant symbol of the conflict: a mutilated statue of Christ rescued from a church that was destroyed in a 2002 rebel mortar attack in the impoverished town of Bojaya. The battle-scarred torso, missing its arms and legs, was front and center onstage as a tangible reminder of one of the war's worst massacres.
"As we look at it, we remember not only what happened on that day but also the immense suffering, the many deaths and broken lives and all the blood spilled in Colombia these past decades," Francis said at the foot of the statue.
He told the crowd he wanted to come to Villavicencio to pray with them and weep with them, and help them to forgive. He embraced victims and perpetrators alike. He called for truth and justice, saying families deserve to know the fates of missing relatives and children recruited to fight. But he also called for mercy, saying truth should never lead to revenge.
He heard four heart-wrenching stories of courage in the face of loss and of guilt-ridden fighters who were now working to amend their wrongs.
Pastora Mira lost her father when she was 6 and later a husband, daughter and son in successive order over the next few decades. She recounted how three days after burying her youngest son in 2005, she cared for an injured paramilitary fighter in the son's bed; upon seeing the boy's photo he confessed to having been one of the killers and told of the torture that preceded his death.
"I thank God and little mother Mary for giving me the strength to treat him without causing harm and in spite of my incredible pain," Mira said as Francis looked on in solemn silence.
Francis has made reconciliation the central theme of his five-day trip after promising to visit the country upon the signing of last year's peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The event drew thousands of victims from all walks of life: soldiers who lost limbs clearing land mines, mothers whose children were forcibly recruited by the rebels never to be seen again and farmers driven off their land by the right-wing paramilitaries.
"When you forgive you still have the scar of the wound, but yes, I have definitely forgiven from my heart," said Paulina Mahecha, whose daughter disappeared in 2004 while studying to be a nurse. Mahecha arrived at the event bearing photos of the daughter around her neck and a banner accusing the army, police and paramilitary groups in her disappearance.
Also on hand was Juan Enrique Montiel, a former paramilitary member, who said he realized he couldn't start a new life until he faced his victims and apologized.
"We made a lot of victims, so (it is necessary) for us to get where we are, being able to walk without fear as a civilian," Montiel said.
Following the event, Francis joined reconciliation with another major theme of his papacy, concern for the environment, by planting a peace tree at a cross honoring the conflict's more than 8 million victims including the dead, disappeared and displaced.
Ahead of the event, the former commander of the FARC published a public letter to Francis.
"Your frequent reminders about the infinite mercy of God move me to beg for your forgiveness for any tear or pain we have caused Colombian society or any of its individuals," wrote Rodrigo Londono, better known by his nom de guerre Timochenko.
The longtime rebel commander, who is undergoing medical treatment in Cuba following a stroke, said he regretted that he was unable to be present. Declaring himself a "devout admirer" of the first Latin American pope, he praised Francis' insistence on the dignity of every human being and criticism of an economic system in which rich nations loot the riches of the poor.
The FARC formed as a Marxist army in the mid-1960s to overthrow Colombia's economic and social system and open the way to redistributing land.
In another sign that the pope's message of reconciliation may be getting through to the deeply polarized nation, the mayor of Medellin confirmed that President Juan Manuel Santos will pray Saturday at a Mass in Colombia's second-largest city with his predecessor and archrival, Alvaro Uribe. Previously the two had refused to appear together at any papal events.
The Christ statue onstage Friday event was damaged when the church in Bojaya was destroyed by a FARC mortar after 300 residents had taken shelter there during a three-way firefight. At least 79 people died and 100 were injured in the 2002 attack.
Today the remote town is a model for reconciliation, having overwhelmingly backed Santos' peace plan and even taken the unusual step of welcoming back the FARC, whose leaders have twice visited to seek forgiveness and develop community projects.
Leyner Palacios, who lost dozens of family members and friends in the attack, travelled for days by boat, plane and bus to bring the statue to Villavicencio with 16 Bojaya residents.
"We are on the right path," Palacios said. "Hopefully the presence of Francis will illuminate others" to forgiveness.
Francis started the day by celebrating Mass in Villavicencio, where he beatified two priests intimately identified with Colombia's conflict. The pope declared them martyrs who "shed their blood for the love of the flock to whom they were entrusted."
The Rev. Pedro Ramirez was murdered following the 1948 assassination of leftist firebrand Jorge Eliecer Gaitan — a slaying that marked the start of a descent into political violence and the eventual arming of poor farmers. Priests in the central town of Armero said Ramirez was pulled from the church, stripped naked and attacked with machetes by an angry mob of Gaitan's followers, who accused him of protecting their conservative, landholding enemies.
Bishop Jesus Jaramillo was gunned down in 1989 in the eastern city of Arauca by rebels with the National Liberation Army, or ELN. The ELN was founded by priests and seminary students inspired by liberation theology, which sought to identify the church with the poor and excluded, and saw in the conservative but charismatic Jaramillo a potential rival for influence.
Some 70 of Ramirez's relatives came from around the world to attend the Mass, which authorities said drew some 400,000 people.
"It is a very happy and exciting day," said Julia Eugenia Ramirez, a great niece of the slain priest. "I feel honored to follow the steps of our great uncle."
Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman contributed from Bogota, Colombia, and Trisha Thomas contributed from Villavicencio.