SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Amid fears of new threats to Colombia’s long-running peace process, the country’s bishops have called for a day of prayer for life, reconciliation, and peace on May 3.

The effort, according to a leading Colombian prelate, is part of the Catholic Church’s “silent service” on behalf of peace.

Cardinal Luis José Rueda, the Archbishop of Bogota and president of the Bishops’ Conference, told Crux that at the local level, the Church in Colombia has an “ethical voice, a community voice, a voice of hope, working and struggling without abandoning its communities despite the serious conflicts.”

Such daily work carried out by so many Catholics in the country “is a silent service of the Church for peace,” Rueda said.

The date of May 3, which coincides with the feast of the Holy Cross, was established to commemorate Pope Francis’s visit in 2017 to Villavicencio, a Colombian city where the pontiff talked with victims of the armed conflict that has existed in the country since the 1960s.

Since then, the date has been celebrated every year. But so far this year, the South American nation has been experiencing a specially complicated situation and reconciliation seems to be more necessary than ever.

The invitation made by the Colombian bishops mentioned that it was prompted by “the serious humanitarian crisis that multiple territories are facing amid the armed conflict and other kinds of violence, as well as the complex sociopolitical landscape the nation lives today, pervaded by division and polarization.”

The Church has a deep knowledge of the obstacles to peace currently in place in Colombia. It has been taking an active role in the promotion of peace in different spheres, serving as one of the guarantors of the negotiations between the government and the guerrillas and accompanying the victims of violence in several territories.

According to Father Hector Henao Gaviria, a long-time peace negotiator in Colombia who has been accompanying the conversations with the guerrilla group Ejército de Liberación Nacional (“National Liberation Army,” known as ELN), there has been significant progress, but the scenario is complex.

“The first topic in the agenda for peace may be about to be signed between ELN and the government. But new challenges have appeared and are disturbing the discussions,” he told Crux.

ELN is the largest guerrilla organization in Colombia still active, after most of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known as FARC) demobilized a few years ago when a peace deal was attained.

The left-wing group began its struggle for a national revolution in Colombia in the 1960s. It has always had a significant participation of Catholics, including priests such as Father Camilo Torres (1929-1966). Over the years, it was accused of taking part in several illicit activities, including drug trafficking and terrorist actions.

ELN has been discussing its potential demobilization with the government over the past eight years in a negotiation with ups and downs. A list of topics to be met as a condition for peace was established by both parties in 2016, but the debates were later suspended.

After President Gustavo Petro’s election in 2022 – he was formerly a member of a guerrilla group called M19, which demobilized in 1990 – the process was resumed and a new agenda was agreed.

According to Henao, the discussions have been advancing and a model for the participation of society in the building of the peace process – which is the agenda’s first item – has been developed. At the same time, however, a subgroup of the ELN in the southern region of the country decided to take part in a local peace negotiation, something that has been confusing the situation.

“The central commando of the ELN doesn’t recognize that group’s autonomy and its decision to discuss peace in its territory,” Henao explained.

Another problem is that the implementation of many items agreed between the FARC and the government as part of their peace deal has been faulty. The lack of a decisive adoption of such an agenda has led to the creation of several FARC dissidences, which continue to be active. The government has been able to negotiate with some of such groups, but that doesn’t seem to be enough to solve the crisis.

“The full implementation of the deal with the FARC continues to be something urgent. It would solve a serious problem of violence in many territories,” Henao said.

The actions of the left-wing guerrilla groups are not the only concern of the Church. Indeed, many other conflicts have been causing deaths and displacing communities all over Colombia. In different territories, people have been victimized or impacted by right-wing paramilitary organizations, drug cartels, and other criminal groups. Indigenous peoples and peasant communities have been continually persecuted and expelled from their lands by invaders.

“The social pastoral ministry has been committed to the dialogue for peace and has been facilitating such arduous negotiations. But, besides that, numerous members of the clergy and religious brothers and sisters defend in their territories peasants, indigenous groups, and community leaders,” he said.

All that effort, however, has been insufficient to deal with the high level of violence in Colombian society. To make things worse, the overall political atmosphere in the country over the past months has been marked by a growing political polarization between the supporters and the adversaries of Petro’s administration.

On April 21, an estimated 400,000 people took to the streets in Bogota, Medellin, Cali, and other cities in order to demonstrate against the government. The protests were sparked by Petro’s plan to reform health care services. He intends to take out from the public system the private institutions that have been offering services and thus increase the State’s direct participation, something that has met the fierce opposition of doctors’ associations.

The demonstrators also voiced their opposition to Petro’s intention to reform the Constitution. Many fear that he will try to approve the possibility of reelection, which is currently impossible in Colombia. Petro denied that he intends to run again for president on a number of occasions.

The theme of the peace negotiations with the guerrillas also appeared. Many demonstrators think there should be no amnesty to the crimes perpetrated by such groups.

The episcopate released a declaration in which it affirmed that the protests are a legitimate expression of the political diversity that exists in Colombia and said that “the government has a great opportunity of listening to all Colombians.”

Petro’s administration called for pro-government demonstrations on May 1, and his supporters are expected to massively go to the streets.

The political climate in the country will not impact the peace negotiations, according to Henao. He said demonstrations have been peaceful and that the Church asked the protesters to keep them that way.

All those factors that have been contributing to increase violence in Colombia will probably remain active in the near future, affirmed Carlos Angarita, a theology professor at the Pontifical Xavierian University.

“In the short term, it’s not possible to conclude that the peace dialogues will lead to the demobilization of ELN,” Angarita told Crux.

He considers the government’s peace negotiations strategy too broad, given that the same office has been responsible for promoting dialogues with guerrilla groups and criminal organizations from several territories.

But he thinks that the model of social participation in those talks that has been achieved is really democratic and can bring positive results in the future.

At the same time, the Church’s participation in those processes, either as a broker of peace or with Catholic officials that work for the government and facilitate such negotiations, has been very active, Angarita said.

“The anti-Petro marches seem to be a political construction aiming at the next presidential elections, which will be held in two years,” he added.

Amid so many conflicts, the Church will keep “announcing the gospel and planting the seeds for a new society, one that is dominated by peace,” Rueda said.