Pope urges skeptical Colombians to accept peace with guerrillas

VILLAVICENCIO, Colombia, Sept 8 - Pope Francis urged Colombians skeptical of a peace deal with guerrillas to be open to reconciliation with those who have repented, speaking hours after a top rebel leader asked the pontiff for forgiveness.

"Dear people of Colombia: do not be afraid of asking for forgiveness and offering it," he said, at an emotional meeting that brought together victims of the 50-year civil war with former guerrilla and paramilitary fighters.

The Argentine pope, leader of the world's Roman Catholics, is visiting Colombia with a message of national reconciliation, as the country tries to heal the wounds left by the conflict and bitter disagreements over a peace deal agreed last year.

Francis flew to the city of Villavicencio in Meta province, a vast cattle ranching area which was a hotbed of right-wing paramilitary and Marxist guerrilla violence during a conflict with successive governments.

As he arrived, former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel leader Rodrigo Londono, now the head of a new political party, issued an open letter to the pope asking for forgiveness for the suffering the group inflicted.

"Your repeated expressions about God's infinite mercy move me to plead your forgiveness for any tears or pain that we have caused the people of Colombia," Londono, who goes by the alias Timochenko, said in the letter.

Tens of thousands of ecstatic people in this humid area of savanna and shantytowns packed the roads as the pope, riding in the front seat of a simple car, passed by on Friday morning after his plane arrived from the capital Bogota.

The pope's afternoon prayer meeting in Villavicencio with about 6,000 survivors of the brutal conflict was the centerpiece of his five-day trip to overwhelmingly Catholic Colombia.

He listened to personal accounts from four people, including a woman who joined a paramilitary group when she was 16, a former FARC guerrilla, and two victims of violence between the guerrillas and paramilitary squads.

One of the victims, Pastora Mira García, told how she lost her father, husband and two children in the conflict. To great applause she urged forgiveness to "break the cycle of violence" and said she could now "name the unnamable and forgive the unforgivable".

On the wall of the stage was a destroyed statue of Jesus Christ recovered from a church attacked by the FARC in 2002 in the rain forest village of Bojaya. About 80 people were killed as they sought refuge from rebel bombings inside the humble church.

The plaster figure, without arms or legs, has become an enduring symbol of the war.

"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," the pope said.

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