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The Latest: Pope urges reconciliation in Colombia conflict

Posted September 8

— The Latest on the pope's visit to Colombia (all times local):

4:15 p.m.

Pope Francis is urging victims and ex-fighters in Colombia's long-running conflict to reconcile so Colombia can move forward.

Francis presided over a reconciliation event in Villavincencio, a city south of Bogota that is surrounded by lands formerly controlled by leftist rebels. He said he wanted to be there to listen to its people and weep with them.

He embraced victims and ex-fighters standing at the foot of the ruined torso of a statue of Christ that was rescued from a church destroyed in a 2002 mortar attack in Bojaya.

He said: "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."

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3:50 p.m.

Pope Francis is hearing heart-wrenching stories from victims of Colombia's half-century long conflict and from those who took part in the bloodshed.

Four Colombians offered their personal testimony as Francis presided over a prayer of reconciliation Friday in an area once besieged by rebels. It's the highlight of his five-day visit aimed at solidifying Colombia's peace process.

Two of the speakers told Francis of being recruited into armed groups: Deisy Sanchez Rey said she spent three years in a paramilitary group after being recruited at 16 by her brother. She said she had "embraced weapons" but then wanted to change her life. She said she knew she had to pay her debt to society for "the grave damage I did" and now works with victims.

Juan Carlos Murcia Perdomo told the pope he spent 12 years as a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. He said he initially believed in FARC's ideology, but increasingly realized he had made a mistake. He said he needed to accept justice for what he had done, and now works to prevent young people from falling in with drugs and armed gangs.

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12:50 p.m.

Pope Francis has met with survivors of a deadly avalanche of water that tore through the small Colombian city of Mocoa in April, killing some 200 people.

Francis donned a blue striped poncho given to him by the delegation of 10 residents of Mocoa, which is near Colombia's border with Ecuador. They met with the pope after he celebrated a Mass on Friday in the central Colombian city of Villavincencio.

Francis had already sent his condolences to Mocoa after three rivers overflowed April 2, sending a wall of mud through the city while people slept.

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12:25 p.m.

Victims of Colombia's long-running conflict are filling up a park on the edge of the Amazon for a meeting of reconciliation with Pope Francis, welcoming his message of the need to forgive to move on.

Relatives of a nurse who disappeared in 2004 arrived Friday with photos of the woman, Marina Cristina Cobo Mahecha, draped around their necks. They carried a banner accusing the army, police and paramilitary groups of having killed her.

Amid images of dismembered body parts, it read: "Somewhere in the Guaviare, the dreams of nurse Marina Christina Cobo Mahecha were buried."

The woman's mother says that despite the pain, she has forgiven the assailants with the help of a priest.

Paulina Mahecha said that without that process of forgiveness "I would be dead." In her words, "Forgiveness was not for them, but for me. When you forgive, you still have the scar of the wound, but yes, I have definitely forgiven from my heart."

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11:05 a.m.

Pope Francis is urging victims of Colombia's violent past to take a first step and forgive their assailants, saying any effort at peace will fail without a sincere commitment to reconciliation.

Francis pressed his call for forgiveness during a visit Friday to a region bloodied by the half-century of armed conflict. It's the highlight of his five-day trip to Colombia.

Francis was interrupted repeated by applause from the crowd of tens of thousands at a Mass in Villavincencio. He praised Colombians harmed by the conflict who have "overcome the understandable temptation for vengeance" and instead worked for peace.

The pope said their choice in no way legitimized the injustices they suffered, but rather showed a willingness to build a peaceful future together.

He warned: "Every effort at peace without sincere commitment to reconciliation is destined to fail."

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10:40 a.m.

Pope Francis has beatified two priests killed during Colombia's years of political violence and guerrilla warfare, declaring them martyrs who died out of hatred for the Catholic faith.

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Villavincencio, a region bloodied by the conflict. They clapped as Francis moved the two men a step closer to possible sainthood at the start of Mass on Friday.

The Rev. Pedro Ramirez was killed in the turbulent days following the 1948 assassination of a leftist firebrand Jorge Eliecer Gaitan — a slaying that marked the start of Colombia's descent into political violence.

Priests in the central Colombian 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 enemies.

Bishop Jesus Jaramillo was gunned down in 1989 in the eastern city of Arauca by rebels from the National Liberation Army, with whom he clashed over theological grounds.

In beatifying them, Francis said they had "shed their blood for the love of the flock to whom they were entrusted."

Even though Colombia is a deeply Roman Catholic country, it has produced only one saint: Mother Laura Montoya, who was canonized by Francis soon after he was made pope in 2013.

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9:30 a.m.

Francis' message of reconciliation may finally be making some headway with Colombia's two most powerful politicians, whose long-running feud has held up the nation's prospects for peace.

The mayor of Medellin says that both President Juan Manuel Santos and his predecessor Alvaro Uribe will attend a papal Mass Saturday in his western city.

Just the fact the rivals will be sharing the VIP section together is a minor political miracle. Uribe has bitterly denounced Santos' peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, likening it to an act of appeasement of terrorists.

Francis brought both together at the Vatican in December to try to broker an understanding. That led to negotiations in which Santos and the rebels eventually incorporated some of Uribe's criticisms into a revised accord that was approved by congress.

But Uribe still opposes the deal and has intensified his criticism of Santos' government with an eye to next year's presidential elections, in which implementation of the accord is likely to be decided.

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7:20 a.m.

The former leader of Colombia's largest rebel group is asking Pope Francis for forgiveness for the pain he and his troops have caused during their long-running war against the state.

Rodrigo Londono says in a letter published on social media that he hopes Francis will understand that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia were always motivated by a sincere desire to stand up for the nation's poorest and most-excluded citizens.

The man better known by his nom de guerre of Timochenko said he was begging forgiveness for any "pain we've caused the Colombian society or any of its individuals."

Francis is travelling Friday to an area once besieged by the FARC. He plans to listen to and pray with thousands of victims of Colombia's half-century conflict, many of them with harrowing tales of abuses committed by the rebels.

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