Villavicencio: Colombian city of 'victims and victimizers'

IMAGE: CNS photo/David Agren

By David Agren

VILLAVICENCIO, Colombia (CNS) — People in need in this city
set in the heart of Colombia’s cattle country line up outside the Pope Francis
food bank, a warehouse built with a donation from the pontiff.

Father Carlos Ricardo, director of social ministries for the
Archdiocese of Villavicencio, says the facility meets a great need in a region where
people have been thrown off their land in the violence afflicting Colombia and
have had to start over in shanties built around Villavicencio.

“It’s a city of settlements, made up of people that had
to leave their land due to war,” Father Ricardo said. “Villavicencio
is made up of victims and victimizers. They’re both here. There are people displaced
that lost their homes, the things that they had. There are also people being
reinserted into society from the guerrilla groups and paramilitaries.”

Pope Francis arrives Sept. 6 in Colombia for a five-day
visit. Among the four cities he will visit is Villavicencio, where he will
celebrate Mass for an estimated 700,000 people — including indigenous
Colombians — and will later offer prayers for reconciliation with victims of
violence attending from all corners of Colombia.

Promoting reconciliation is a recurring theme in the pope’s
trip and a priority among Catholics in Colombia after five decades of armed
conflicts and the signing of a peace accord between the government and the main
guerrilla group.

Villavicencio, 75 miles southeast of the capital, Bogota, is
the gateway to remote regions such as the Amazon, and Pope Francis is also
expected to promote reconciliation with creation and speak of environmental

Church officials say the trip to Villavicencio, population
500,000 and growing quickly over the past decade as displaced persons arrived,
is heavy on symbolism and meant to send messages on topics important for
Colombia and the church as a whole.

Villavicencio “was the heart of the conflict for many
years in this region, with many different armed groups,” said Msgr. Hector
Fabio Henao, director of Caritas Colombia. It’s a city where Pope Francis
“will find victims of the armed conflict.”

“It’s also on the road to the Amazon. The pope can
point toward the Amazon, toward its inhabitants, (the) destruction of the
jungle over the decades … and make a reference to reconciliation with nature,”
he said.

Locals call Villavicencio the gateway to the “Llano,”
the plains of Colombia. With an abundance of available land, Father Ricardo
says the region attracted the displaced persons from around the country, who
had to start over from scratch after losing their properties.

Though close to the capital, Villavicencio is described a bottleneck
for those traveling to the southern parts of Colombia. It’s also the place
where the “rest of Colombia begins,” vast swaths of rugged and
sparsely populated terrain, along with the Amazon region — an area taken
advantage of by guerrillas, who used its thick vegetation for cover.

The area has been largely forgotten by the government.
Paramilitaries, often paid by palm growers, inflicted violence on vulnerable
populations. The Catholic Church has played a role, providing services where
the state has been absent.

That work has not always been appreciated by those in
positions of power. Priests ministering to populations with unpopular political
opinions or areas occupied by guerrilla groups were seen with suspicion or as promoting
liberation theology.

“There have been murders of human rights leaders …
and priests for defending human rights by the state itself,” said Father
Ricardo. “We work with the poor, giving them the word of God, but (elites)
thought that we were subversive, that if we were not with them, we were against
them … that we’re spreading a revolutionary mentality.”

While in Villavicencio, Pope Francis will beatify two
martyrs: Bishop Jesus Emilio Jaramillo Monsalve of Arauca — who was murdered
by Marxist guerrillas in 1989 in an area rife with conflict — and Father Pedro
Maria Ramirez. The latter was hacked to death by a machete-wielding mob in 1948
after the assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, whose
Liberal Party was often scorned by the Catholic Church.

In this region, the peace accord signed by the federal
government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is still
viewed suspiciously by many, including some in the church hierarchy.

Father Ricardo expressed hope the pope’s trip to
Villavicencio would “set a single direction” for the church to follow
in the attempts to promote peace in Colombia.

Reconciliation will not be easy, but some in Villavicencio
appear willing.

“Forgiving is hard,” said Jeydi Gonzalez, a
program director with the archdiocesan social ministry in Villavicencio, whose
father was among six men murdered by paramilitaries. Making forgiveness harder
is that provisions under the peace accords mean one of her father’s killers — four
others implicated were killed — will have his sentence cut from 50 years to
seven years.

“I feel very happy” the pope is coming to Colombia
“but also anxious to know what he is going to say,” said Gonzalez,
who credits accompaniment from a priest after her father’s murder for helping
her family at a time when others in their village viewed them suspiciously. “They
stigmatized us,” she said, because they thought her father had to have
been involved with the guerrillas.

The priest’s intervention also provided her with an
opportunity to continue studying and earn a master’s degree from a Canadian

Gonzalez said she hoped Pope Francis “can help bring
home a message that speaks to our reality, the context which Colombia is

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