ROME – According to President Juan Manuel Santos, his government will later today sign a bilateral cease-fire with the nation’s last major active rebel group. It might have been months in the making, but there’s no question about Pope Francis’s role in it, as the announcement was made less than 48 hours before the pontiff is expected to land in Bogota.
Francis has been a vocal proponent for a negotiated peace, built on dialogue. He’s also supported Colombia’s peace process, which aims to bring to an end a five-decade civil war, even if he’s remained neutral on the actual peace agreements signed so far.
“The pope is arriving amid a unique moment in our history, as we turn the page on an absurd conflict and look to the future with hope,” Santos said in a televised address.
Santos announced on Monday that the agreement with the National Liberation Army (ELN) will be signed in Quito, Ecuador, where negotiations have been taking place since February. Ten Catholic bishops have been at the table from the beginning.
The ELN confirmed the news given by Santos through their Twitter account.
The cease-fire will take effect Oct. 1 and, at least initially, run through Jan. 12. If the two sides agree, it can be renewed, according to Santos.
“The priority is protecting citizens,” Santos said. “That’s why during this period the kidnappings, attacks on oil pipelines and other hostilities against the civilian population will cease.”
The ELN, whose founders five decades ago included radical Roman Catholic priests, is believed to have about 1,500 active fighters.
Last year, the government brokered a peace accord with the much larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC. The guerrilla group recently completed their mandatory disarmament, and announced the launching of their political party.
Since the conflict began, an estimated 260,000 people have been killed, mostly civilians, and tens of thousands are missing. In addition, the war has displaced some 6 million people.
Reconciliation will be a key them of Pope Francis’s Sept. 6-11 visit, that will include stops in Bogota, Cartagena, Villavicencio and Medellin.
The official motto for the trip is “Let’s take the first step,” a reference to the ongoing push for peace. However, both the Vatican and local Church officials have insisted on describing Francis’s visit as a pastoral one, and not in support of any specific peace agreement.
Speaking to Crux ahead of both the trip and the announcement of the agreement, Monsignor Hector Fabio Henao, head of Caritas Colombia, said that the Church had appointed a commission of bishops who have been supporting the negotiations, “giving voices of support, making it clear that the Church is really looking for a solution to the humanitarian situations that we’ve lived through for decades, so that the victimization ends, so that no more people are murdered and no more attacks against the population are perpetrated.”
From the humanitarian perspective, Henao said, the Church is “deeply concerned about and committed” to the victims, and the scope of the bishop’s participation was to guarantee, at least during the first stage of the conversations, a bilateral ceasefire, “a key element for a peace process to take root.”
In recent days, the ELN has requested a meeting with the pope during his time in Colombia, among other things to apologize for murdering Bishop Jesús Emilio Jaramillo Monsalve, whom the pontiff will declare a martyr on Friday, while he’s Villavicencio.