ROME – Pope Francis voiced alarm Sunday over ongoing tensions in Colombia, where a failed attempt at a tax reform has spiraled into protests and violent repression leaving at least 37 people dead, with hundreds missing and thousands wounded.
“I would like to express my concern for the tensions and violent clashes in Colombia, which have caused deaths and injuries,” Francis said during his Regina Coeli address. “There are many Colombians here; let us pray for your homeland.”
A contingent of some two hundred Colombians, most of whom have been living in Italy for several years, were in St. Peter’s Square waving their national flags while sporting the national soccer jersey, as the pope spoke.
The Regina Roeli replaces the traditional Angelus from Easter Sunday until Pentecost.
Protests began on April 28 over a tax reform by President Ivan Duque. The proposals would have increased the cost of public services, fuel, and basic needs such as bread, sugar and milk. In addition, Duque also proposed a tax increase on funeral services as the country is struggling with a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed over 75,000 people in the last year.
Though the administration has backtracked, protests have grown, as have reports of police violence, civilian deaths and forced disappearances. Amnesty International and other NGOs have denounced the military and police forces of Colombia for alleged human rights violations.
Many observers have pointed out there’s a link between the ongoing protests and another series of protests that begin in November 2019.
Among those who see the connection were several of those who attended the Regina Coeli on Sunday.
Edgar, who’s been in Rome for the past 20 years after fleeing the violence of the civil war argued that both in 2019 and now, people rose up for several reasons.
“People are tired. People are without work. People are without food. The city of Bogota went from having 4 percent of its population in extreme poverty in early 2020 to 13 percent now,” he told Crux.
“The tax reform wanted to raise the cost of first necessity goods 19 percent, as well as the cost of burying our dead, in the middle of a pandemic, while lowering the taxes for banks and multinational corporations,” he said. “This was the drop that made an already full glass overflow.”
Luz Elena has been in Rome for the past five years, and she went to St. Peter’s Square to protest the violence and repression from part of the government. She told Crux she will join other Colombians in Rome on Monday who will continue to protest what is happening in their homeland.
“We want peace,” she said. “All we ask for is justice, for people to be able to protest and not be killed, for people to be able to work, eat, study, without the constant looming threat of a government ready to take it all, for the benefit of a few.”
Teresa, who’s been in Rome for over a decade, has been following the protests closely, since her two adult children are still in Colombia.
“I understand why they go out and protests peacefully, but as a mother, I’m living on edge. Every time the phone rings, I know it could be my ex-husband delivering bad news.”
All three feared a “state of commotion,” an extreme measure the Colombian Constitution allows for that gives the president power to lead in an authoritarian fashion by overriding city and state officials, ignoring Congress and restricting freedom of the press.
“Seeing the experience our continent has with authoritarian governments, it’s hard not to have chills down your spine just by thinking about it,” Edgar said. “The only way to save the lives of the Colombian people is the pressure of the international community. The United Nations has spoken in favor of peace in Colombia; the Organization of American States held an emergency meeting; and the European Union released a statement condemning the deaths of all those killed during the protests. And Pope Francis has spoken too.”
The Colombian bishops have released several statements, both as a national bishops’ conference and individually, calling for peace, dialogue, and an end to the violent repression.
“We resolutely reject, regardless of their origin, human rights violations, acts of vandalism, blockades to mobility and the food supply, the disappearance of persons, attacks against the physical integrity of any person, and the destruction of public and private property,” the Colombian bishops wrote in a May 5 statement.
During his Sunday Regina Caeli prayer, Pope Francis also expressed his “particular concern” over the Jerusalem, praying for the Holy City to become “a place of encounter and not of violent clashes, a place of prayer and peace,” while inviting all those involved “to seek shared solutions so that the multireligious and multicultural identity” prevails.
“Violence begets violence,” he said. “Enough with the clashes.”
Francis also prayed for victims of a terrorist attack that took place on Saturday in Kabul, Afghanistan, where at least 50 people, many students of an all-girls school, were killed by three coordinated explosions outside the school entrance that struck as students were leaving for the day.
The pope defined the attack as “an inhumane action that struck so many girls as they were leaving school. Let us pray for each one of them and for their families. And may God give peace to Afghanistan.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma