ROME — Three years into peace negotiations being held in Havana to end a civil war that’s dragged on for almost 60 years, members of Colombia’s main guerrilla organization have asked to meet Pope Francis when he visits next month in order to request his involvement.
After a session with the head of Colombia’s bishops’ conference in Havana Monday, a negotiator for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC, said the guerrillas also want to have a permanent Vatican delegate present for the last stage of the negotiations.
Colombia’s national Victims’ Unit officially recognizes more than 7 million victims of the 55-year war involving the government, Marxist guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries, and heavily armed narco-traffickers. More than 220,000 Colombians have died in the conflict, including scores of Christians killed while trying to defend peace and justice.
Speaking to Crux on the condition of anonymity to avoid interfering in the process, a Latin America diplomat accredited to the Vatican confirmed that a Vatican representative to the peace talks is possible, but would not comment on the possibility of a meeting between the pontiff and the Colombian guerillas in Cuba.
The diplomat said, however, that if an agreement is reached soon, Francis could include a stop in Colombia in an eventual foray to Latin America in 2016, where he promised to make his first return visit to his homeland, Argentina.
With a population of almost 50 million, Colombia has the world’s sixth largest Catholic community, after Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, the United States, and Italy. According to a 2013 study from the Pew Research Center, almost 85 percent of the population of Colombia defines itself as Catholic.
From the mid-1980s until last year, Colombia was regarded as the world’s most dangerous country for Catholic personnel. According to the bishops’ conference, 85 priests, two bishops, eight religious men and women, and two seminarians have been killed since 1984, with those deaths attributable to a staggering variety of forces, including armed bands of both the left and the right, as well as the country’s notorious drug cartels.
Antonio Lozada, one of the FARC members trying to broker a peace agreement, said that they want to meet with Francis, but that “it will depend on the Vatican and the Cuban government.”
He also said that they’re trying to have a delegate from Pope Francis at the table, but “this is something the two delegations have to request jointly.”
Archbishop Luis Augusto Castro, head of the diocese of Tunja and president of the Colombian bishops’ conference, said both sides – FARC and the government of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos – see Pope Francis’ interest in the peace process positively.
Speaking to Radio Caracol on Aug. 3, he said Francis has expressed his desire to collaborate in the peace process.
After Monday’s meeting, Castro underlined the “seriousness” with which the two sides have been talking, but also acknowledged that the Colombian people are losing faith in the process, something he called “unfair.”
“We’re working very seriously toward the culmination of the peace process,” Castro said.
Under the Twitter alias “Iván Márquez,” a guerrilla spokesman named Luciano Martín Arango declared optimism.
“We’re moving forward on the cease of bilateral fire and justice. [The] Church has renewed its commitment with Colombia’s peace,” he tweeted.
Somos optimistas. Estamos avanzando en cese en fuego bilateral y en justicia. Iglesia ha renovado su compromiso con la paz de Colombia.
— Iván Márquez (@IvanMarquezFARC) August 17, 2015
Speaking to the press, Arango said that the FARC’s desire to meet Francis “comes from the heart.”
According to local reports, negotiations between FARC and the Santos government will continue Thursday in Havana.
Pope Francis will be in Cuba Sept. 19-22, after which he will head to the United States. Both President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro regarded the pontiff as a key player in the process of normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba.