BOGOTA: Pope Francis held an open-air mass on Thursday (Sep 7) for hundreds of thousands of worshippers in Colombia, urging forgiveness as they seek a lasting end to half a century of civil war.
Cheering crowds greeted the 80-year-old Argentine pontiff as he urged them to reject "vengeance" - though some warned forgiveness was hard after so much violence.
Francis earlier met with President Juan Manuel Santos, who has overseen a controversial peace deal with the FARC rebel force and a ceasefire with the last active guerrilla group, the ELN.
Those are key steps towards ending a many-sided conflict, fueled by drug trafficking, that has left 260,000 people confirmed dead, 60,000 unaccounted for and seven million displaced.
"Here, as in other places, there is a thick darkness which threatens and destroys life," Francis said in his homily in Bogota's Simon Bolivar Park.
"The darkness of thirst for vengeance and the hatred which stains the hands of those who would right wrongs on their own authority; the darkness of those who become numb to the pain of so many victims. Jesus scatters and destroys all this darkness."
Beside Francis on the roofed stage, prayers were read by guests including an indigenous leader in a feathered head-dress - a representative of the rural communities particularly hurt by the war.
CONTESTED PEACE PROCESS
Santos won a Nobel Peace Prize last year for his part in the accord that has seen the FARC disarm and transform into a political party.
But the peace process has been fraught with division. Critics say the FARC rebels got off too lightly, with amnesties and alternative sentences.
Francis last year tried unsuccessfully to mediate between Santos and the lead opponent of the FARC accord, conservative ex-president Alvaro Uribe.
"This process is a lie ... I believe in God, but I do not need intermediaries," said Bogota resident Luis Eduardo Martinez, 63, commenting on the pope's visit as Francis's admirers gathered.
"We who saw so many victims die have not lost our resentment. I hope God will allow me to let that resentment go, but it is still there."
In a balcony address to crowds of young people near Bogota's cathedral, Francis urged them to "dream big" for the country's future.
"Your youthfulness ... makes you capable of something very difficult in life: forgiving. Forgiving those who have hurt us," he said.
REBEL LEADER'S WELCOME
FARC leader Rodrigo Londono hailed the pope, tweeting his thanks to Francis "for supporting the peace and defending social and environmental justice."
Santos thanked Francis for coming to "encourage us to take the first step toward reconciliation.
Carlos Arturo Rodriguez, 51, an indigenous traditional doctor, traveled from the southern Caqueta region to see the pope.
Rodriguez told AFP his wife and various other relatives were killed by state security forces during the conflict. "I forgive them with all my heart," he said. "But I don't know whether my God does."
PRAYING FOR VICTIMS
After talks with Santos at the presidential palace, Francis visited Bogota cathedral and met with bishops.
He posed for selfies with worshippers and prayed before the image of the Virgin of Chiquinquira, Colombia's patron saint, which was flown to Bogota by helicopter for the occasion.
From Friday he will make daily excursions by plane to the cities of Villavicencio, Medellin and Cartagena.
In Villavicencio, he will pray for reconciliation with victims of violence, former guerrilla members and ex-military fighters.
"I think this pope has a very positive energy," said Cristal Vivas, 15, who came out to see him in Bogota. "He puts himself in the place of us, the common people... and inspires peace in people."