BOGOTÁ, COLOMBIA — Although a ‘Yes’ vote appears likely in a forthcoming referendum, Colombians remain deeply divided over the historic peace agreement reached on August 24 in Havana between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the country’s 7,000-strong guerrilla army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Over the weekend some 200 FARC delegates have begun meeting in their southern stronghold in the plains of Yarí to vote for the accords and to discuss turning themselves from a military into a civilian political organization.

From Yarí the FARC chief, whose nom de guerre is “Timochenko”, will go to the Caribbean city of Cartagena to sign the accords with President Santos in a ceremony attended by the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, along with many Latin-American leaders.

Santos says he chose Cartagena because of the tomb there of St. Peter Claver, the sixteenth-century Jesuit defender of the human rights of slaves.

Although strongly supportive of a negotiated settlement to the decades-long civil war, Colombia’s bishops have been careful not to endorse a “Yes” vote in the referendum, focusing instead on educating voters about the issues involved and urging them to turn out.

The stance has attracted considerable criticism, with some accusing the Church of remaining neutral over an historic peace.

Last week the newly-elected secretary-general of the Colombian bishops’ conference, Auxiliary Bishop Elkin Alvarez Botero of Medellin, sat down with Crux to discuss the bishops’ nuanced position. He firmly rejected the idea that the bishops are in any way neutral over a negotiated end to the conflict, but says they have no desire to contribute to the polarization in the country over the Accords.

He also explained how the Church is preparing for the massive pastoral challenge of thousands of demobilized Marxist guerrillas landing in parishes in the south of the country. Former combatants will be concentrated in so-called “normalization zones” during a six-month process of handing over their weapons and planning for a re-insertion into society.


Crux: Let me see if I understand the bishops’ stance on the referendum on 2 October. On the one hand, you are extremely supportive of the peace process, but on the other you don’t want people to vote for it because the Church tells them to – in other words, they have to use their consciences.

Alvarez Botero: The Church is inviting a conscience vote for two main reasons.

The first is that we have the pastoral duty to respect peoples’ consciences, just as in any election. Some people are saying this isn’t like an election because we’re not voting for particular candidates, but the topic of peace has been politicized.

I’ve been looking over what the Church says about the duty of Catholics or Christians in politics, and the note from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in 2002 by, at the time, then-Cardinal [Joseph] Ratzinger, lays out the points very clearly: that people must exercise their consciences in voting, and that the pastors of the Church have the duty to enlighten consciences. But the final responsibility is with the one casting the vote, and that is the line we’ve taken.

The second point — one that all the bishops were really clear on — is that we don’t want to aggravate the polarization in the country. In that sense, it’s not a question of neutrality, it’s about trying to position ourselves in the pastoral duty that is incumbent upon on us, and at the same time urging people to decide for themselves.

In this we’ve been absolutely clear: whether you’re voting yes or no, you must vote. You can’t be indifferent. And in this sense we’re right there with Pope Francis in what he says about indifference, that it’s one of the plagues from which we need to escape.

Traditionally in Colombia turnout is low, with many people either not registered or cynical about the results. What can the Church do to change this – maybe by helping voters to understand the issues involved?

We have certainly been trying. In the last elections, whether for president or in other elections, there has always been a message from the bishops urging people to vote, to get involved as citizens and not be indifferent, because in Colombia traditionally there has been mass abstention, which is really worrying.

With the referendum on the Havana Accords, there was a point at which the sheer level of technicality carried an enormous risk that ordinary people wouldn’t understand and would just stay away. That’s why we’ve been calling for and carrying out a “pedagogy of peace” – educating people about the broader issues, as well as specifically about the Havana Accords.

I think that is the significant contribution of the Church, and of its pastors, to there being a more consistent, robust and numerous participation of the Colombian people.

Obviously the Church is not indifferent or neutral about the possibility of building peace following an agreement with the guerrillas, and that is why we are urging people to use their consciences, so that they clearly opt for the way of negotiation and dialogue.

Clearly forgiveness and reconciliation have been key to the process, and that’s something over which the Church has had a lot to say.

First, we’ve sought to maintain the awareness that the Havana Accords represent the path we should always take in conflicts, namely, the way of dialogue. The Church has always sought a negotiated way out of the conflict. Negotiation implies reconciliation, and this is the Church’s own message.

In the second place, the roots of the violence go much deeper than the guerrilla conflict. The guerrillas are in many ways the consequence of much deeper problems. Following a thorough analysis, we have identified eight roots of the violence – the absence of God, the disintegration of the family, the loss of values, defects in the education system, the absence of the state and weak institutions, social inequalities, and corruption.

As bishops we are inviting all Catholics to work, as a Church, to eliminate those causes which are at the base of all major conflicts.

How important has it been that the peace process reached its successful conclusion within the context of the Jubilee of Mercy?

The Year of Mercy has provided a very favorable context for the Church to work for the possibility of national reconciliation. I would say that the extra element that has entered into this has been the polarization that we now have in Colombia.

Those who defend a ‘No’ vote put forward a series of arguments that really have nothing to do with forgiveness. I think Colombians are disposed to forgiveness and to mercy, with a very generous spirit, but they perceive that there are other elements involved.

One of those ‘extra’ elements is the question of gender, which critics say is mentioned 114 times in the Havana Accords, raising fears that gender ideology has been introduced, as it were, through the back door.

There are many different forces involved here, and many different things that have sadly polarized us. So what is the Church’s task in this? In the event that the Accords are not accepted in the referendum, or are to be implemented in a different way at a later date, or whatever else may happen in the future, the Catholic Church has to be prepared to accompany and help build the basis for future reconciliation.

This is even clear in some of the words of the pope – he says: peace, yes, of course; but first of all, reconciliation. Peace is the fruit of reconciliation, so we have to work on that and then wait for the right moment.

Right now, we’re preparing. We have 60 priests or pastoral workers from the zones where the guerrillas will be concentrated during the demobilization process, getting legal knowledge, learning about the meaning of the different aspects of the process – for what purpose? So they can give pastoral attention to the people who will be gathered there, the people who will be part of their parish community during this time, so that they can receive proper pastoral attention.

I told them yesterday that they have the mission of the Church, in the name of the whole Church in Colombia, to give pastoral attention and to heal wounds. To become a battlefield hospital, in Pope Francis’s expression, for those people who will eventually live through the demilitarization process in these zones.

I understand that the Church arranged, during the peace negotiations, to bring the victims to Havana, and that this had a considerable effect.

Yes, and this led, in some cases, to us arranging for psychological assistance. The question of the victims is very important, and really our interest is centered on them. Everything we seek to do for reconciliation and for conversion is in favor of the victims of this whole process, who make up, directly or indirectly, half of the Colombian population.

There are eight million people who have been directly affected, but each has two or three family members, at least. That’s why we can speak of half of the Colombian population involved in this conflict.

Of course many say that precisely because of the huge number of victims there should be no impunity.

We recognize that there is international law governing these processes, and that we can’t go against international agreements about crimes of genocide and so on. As a Church, we are inclined to favor a reconciliation that abides by international processes and procedures.

But at the same time the will of the Colombian people is to encourage reconciliation. Every peace process involves giving something up, making a sacrifice, and allowing the common good to prevail, as long as there are guarantees that we won’t go back to where we were or try to use the Accords to carry on with the same attitude.

True repentance plays a major role here.

The role of the Church is going to be, above all, after the referendum – that’s where we need to raise awareness of what reconciliation requires, beyond the polarization that involves opting for one side or another.

The pope has promised to come next year if the peace process holds. How could that affect the post-referendum healing process?

Of course it will help a lot, and we have had continual encouragement from the Holy Father throughout this process. I think the pope has given us the foundations of the Church’s pastoral task in working for peace. Nobody should doubt – and this I really would like to shout from the rooftops – that the Church wants peace.

The Havana Accords are one way of moving us towards this, but it’s a way that everybody has to own for themselves, and that’s why we need freedom of conscience, because only that way will we really be able to build a lasting peace.