AP report recognizes heroic work of priests who risk their lives for peace in Colombia

.- A story by Associated Press reporter Kim Housego is revealing the danger that hundreds of priests in Colombia face on a daily basis in their mission to bring peace to the troubled country.

As the bishops of Colombia are currently making their Ad limina visit to the Vatican, during which Pope John Paul II has delivered a moving message to Colombia, Housego underscored that, “Priests already are playing key roles in a nascent peace process between the government and a right-wing militia, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. They also are promoting dialogue between the government and the leftist National Liberation Army, known as the ELN.”

She added that “going beyond their normal duties of baptizing babies, celebrating Mass and hearing confession, they intervene to secure freedom for hostages, escort civilians to safety through combat zones and broker temporary truces.”

Housego cites the case of Fr. Leonel Narvaez, a priest in the town of Caqueta, who met with leaders of a paramilitary group in an effort to promote peace.  On the way home, he noticed a rattling noise coming from the engine compartment.

“Pulling over to investigate, he popped the hood and discovered two hand grenades on the verge of exploding, their safety pins nearly jiggled loose. Brushes with death are becoming common for priests in Colombia's civil war,” said Housego.

According to the report, during the 40 years of conflict, the Catholic Church has often been the only channel of communication between warring factions. In isolated regions, priests fill a void left by the absence of state authority.” 

''The church is the only institution that all sides respect,'' said the Rev. Luis Ritmel, whose parish is in the jungles of Bojaya county in northwestern Colombia,   ''It is God's will to help those in need, so I am obliged to do so. But obviously I get scared,'' Ritmel said. ''I was once threatened by the guerrillas for refusing to bless their rifles.''

The Rev. Dario Echeverri, secretary-general of the church-led National Reconciliation Commission, is trying to facilitate a deal sought by the country's second leftist movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The group proposes to free dozens of kidnapped politicians, soldiers and police officers in exchange for hundreds of jailed rebels, the report says.

Last December, writes Housego, Echeverri took a helicopter into the snowcapped Sierra Nevada Mountains to fly seven foreign backpackers to freedom after helping negotiate their release from 100 days as hostages of the ELN.

''Most of the time it's very difficult, frustrating work,'' Echeverri said.  Sometimes, though, some group sees the clergy as being too close to an enemy. Over the past 20 years, an archbishop, a bishop, at least 50 priests and three nuns have been murdered.

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