Pope embraces Colombian victims, ex-fighters in peace bid

VILLAVICENCIO, Colombia (AP) — Pope Francis brought together thousands of victims of Colombia’s half-century-long conflict with their former victimizers, presiding over a prayer for reconciliation Friday in hopes of solidifying the country’s peace process and healing still-fresh wounds.

In the highlight of his Colombia pilgrimage, Francis flew into an area once besieged by leftist rebels to pray with victims and urge them to overcome their grief by forgiving their assailants. And he urged the ex-fighters to have the courage to seek that forgiveness, saying peace will fail unless both sides reconcile.

Looming large over the ceremony in the central city of Villavicencio was a poignant symbol of the conflict: a mutilated statue of Christ rescued from a church that was destroyed in a 2002 rebel mortar attack in the impoverished town of Bojaya. The battle-scarred torso, missing its arms and legs, was front and center onstage as a tangible reminder of one of the war’s worst massacres.

“As we look at it, we remember not only what happened on that day but also the immense suffering, the many deaths and broken lives and all the blood spilled in Colombia these past decades,” Francis said at the foot of the statue.

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