| 9.7°C Belfast

Pope heads to former Colombia war zone with message of forgiveness


Pope Francis has a message of forgiveness for Colombians (AP)

Pope Francis has a message of forgiveness for Colombians (AP)

Pope Francis has a message of forgiveness for Colombians (AP)

Pope Francis is heading into a former war-ravaged city to pray with victims of Colombia's long conflict and urge them to overcome their grief by forgiving their former assailants.

The highlight of his visit to the central city of Villavicencio, described by the Vatican as a "great prayer meeting for national reconciliation", is bound to be a deeply emotional gathering for Francis, who has made reconciliation the central theme of his five-day visit to Colombia.

The Pope promised to visit the country upon the signing of last year's peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The event will be attended by thousands of victims from all walks of life - soldiers who lost limbs clearing landmines, mothers whose children were forcibly recruited by the rebels, never to be seen again and farmers driven off their land by right-wing paramilitary groups.

Former rebels are also expected to attend but the Vatican and Colombian organisers have given no indication that the FARC leadership will come, or even meet Francis during his visit, reflecting the freshness of the conflict's wounds and sensitivities stirred by any public appearance of still-despised former guerrillas.

Among those attending is Lucrecia Valencia, 40, who lost her husband and son, as well has her right arm and left leg, when they were going out to collect firewood near their home.

Her town was for years engulfed by violence and she says she wants the world to know that the country's peace is fragile.

She said the landmine that upended her life in 2009 was probably planted by another rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, which remains active in many parts of the country.

"We're sick of all this," she said. "I'm a woman of a good heart.

"I have nothing to ask for. But I want people to know we don't want any more war."

Presiding over the event will be a mutilated Christ statue rescued from a bombed-out church 15 years ago - perhaps the most powerful reminder of the senseless political violence that left more than 250,000 people dead and millions displaced.

Several Afro-Colombian residents of the impoverished town of Bojaya travelled for days by boat, plane and bus to bring the modest plaster statue to Villavicencio to be blessed by the Pope.

Francis will also beatify two priests intimately identified with Colombia's conflict, at a Mass in Villavicencio.

The Pope said the Rev Pedro Ramirez and Bishop Jesus Jaramillo were killed out of hatred for their faith.

Villavicencio is also a choice location to reflect another of the Pope's concerns on his visit to Colombia - the environment.

Lying on the edge of the Amazon rainforest, the one-time backwater was transformed by an economic boom as the winding down of the conflict and a spike in commodity prices drew oil companies and multinational agricultural interests to areas that were previously off limits.

With peace, the land grab is expected to intensify, straining even further Colombia's delicate environment, one of the world's most biodiverse, with more bird species than any other country.

Before leaving Francis, who has warned that today's "structurally perverse" economic system risks turning Earth into an "immense pile of filth", will plant a tree at the cross of reconciliation as a sign of new life.