Pope Francis has begun his five-day pastoral visit to Colombia, officia;s said. During Francis' first event of the day Thursday, a man broke through security and threw himself at Francis' feet on the red carpet as the pope arrived at the presidential palace.
In a gesture likely to mark the deep symbolism of the trip, he was given a commemorative peace dove sculpted by an adolescent youth born in a jungle camp to a rebel father and a politician mother after she was taken captive by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in 2002.
On the eve of Francis' arrival, the leader of the political opposition to the peace accords, former-president Ǻlvaro Uribe, struck a distinctly sour and dissident note by writing a letter to the pope denouncing the spread of violence and drugs under the government of his political rival and now, apparently, his enemy, President Santos.
Hope is a major theme for the visit, as Francis seeks to encourage Colombians to reconcile with one another after five decades of armed rebellion.
On his drive to the Vatican Embassy in central Bogota, the leader of the world's Roman Catholics was mobbed in the "popemobile" by screaming crowds tossing flowers and holding up children to be kissed.
"I come as a pilgrim of hope and peace to celebrate with you the faith in our Lord and also to learn from your charity and perseverance in search of peace and harmony", Francis said in a video message this week.
The Colombian President thanked Francis for supporting negotiators at troubling moments during the four-year negotiations with the guerrilla group and hoped his visit would inspire the ordinary people to commit to peace.
"This is the peace we are constructing", he told the Pope. Many conservative opponents of the deal - including clergy - oppose the generous terms offered to the guerrillas. "You are not alone, many of us want to give way for peace". A half-hour into the flight, he told journalists he wanted to "help Colombia in its path of peace".
Pope Francis will officiate today his first camp mass at Bogota's Simon Bolivar Park, in which about one million parishioners eager for his message of peace are expected to attend.
He then reminded the media that "this plane we will fly over Venezuela", and here, too, he asked them to "pray that it can dialogue, a dialogue with everyone, so that the country can have good stability".
And the meeting will be framed by one of the most poignant symbols of the conflict: a mutilated Christ statue that was rescued from a church in the western town of Bojaya after a FARC mortar attack in 2012. At least 79 people died and 100 were injured.
As he was walking to the stage where he delivered his remarks, Pope Francis was flanked by Santos and first lady Maria Clemencia Rodriguez.
In a speech Thursday at the residence of Bogota's archbishop, Francis urged Colombia's 130 bishops to give their flock the courage "in taking the first step towards definitive peace and reconciliation, towards abdicating the method of violence and overcoming the inequalities at the root of so much suffering". That conflict has claimed 220,000 lives and left millions more victimized and displaced. Both used their visits to show solidarity with victims of violence, discrimination and poverty and to urge government authorities to fix the structural and societal problems that have made Colombia one of the most unequal countries in Latin America.