Catholic Church clergy have played an active role in peace mediation efforts during Colombia’s war, which pits the two rebel groups against right-wing paramilitary factions and government forces, killing an average of 3,500 people every year.
During their 2,200-mile journey by vehicle convoy that begins on Saturday, the clerics will be traveling without army protection, fearing it could turn them into a target or deter leftist rebels or right-wing paramilitary fighters from attending sermons along the route, the Rev. Leiner de Jesus Castano told a news conference.
“The Catholic Church is widely respected,” Castano declared. “I don’t think anybody will try to impede us.”
Catholic Bishops of England and Wales have previously expressed concerns for the people of Columbia.
In a recent statement they affirmed that “a peace process in Colombia, which implies a concerted response to the linked problems of violence, poverty, extreme economic inequalities, drug cultivation and trafficking, deserves the urgent and committed support of the international community, and that this support will need to include a close control of the arms trade with Colombia.”
Hard-line President Alvaro Uribe has however ruled out peace talks with the two rebel groups — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army — until they first agree to a cease-fire. Nascent peace talks have begun with a paramilitary umbrella group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.
Priests themselves have not been immune from the violence of Colombia’s four-decade war. An archbishop, a bishop, 50 priests and three nuns have been killed by suspected rebels or paramilitary fighters in Colombia the past 20 years, according to government figures.
The route of the convoy, which begins in southwest Colombia and is expected to end in five months, also cuts through some of the most heavily contested regions of Colombia — areas were members of Colombia’s two rebel armies are present as well as their right-wing paramilitary foes. Coca fields, which produce cocaine trafficked by the rebels and paramilitary groups, also flourish near the route.
The priests will set out in a convoy of trucks and cars from Ipiales, near the border with Ecuador.
“We need to move forward in the process of reconciliation,” said Monsignor Hector Fabio Henao, a Catholic Church leader who is also an official peace mediator. “We want to build a momentum toward peace among every social class.”
© 2004 Ekklesia. Posted on Religioscope with permission. An initiative of the Anvil Trust, Ekklesia is a not-for-profit think-tank which works to promote theological ideas in the public square. Website: www.ekklesia.co.uk