Pope Francis received a spirited and symbolic welcome as he arrived in Colombia on Wednesday, saying he wants to bring a message of hope for Colombians as they work to heal the wounds and divisions left by Latin America's longest-running armed conflict.
Francis' white popemobile was nearly mobbed by jubilant crowds who flooded the 15-kilometer (9-mile) road into Bogota from the airport, and his security detail struggled to keep them at bay without a police barricade in sight. Francis relishes diving into crowds and didn't seem at all fazed by the flower-tossing masses, even giving a few high-fives to some young people who got a little too close.
The first pope from Latin America looked thrilled to be back in Colombia, the first country he visited after he was ordained a priest and where he exerted a good deal of effort encouraging peace negotiations that spanned his papacy.
One of the gifts he received on the tarmac had particular symbolic significance: a sculpted peace dove offered to him by the young son of a rebel father and politician mother who was taken captive by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in 2002. The boy was taken from his mother, Clara Rojas, now a congresswoman, and didn't see her again until he was 3 years old.
In his only public remarks on his first day in Colombia, Francis begged young Colombians who gathered outside the Vatican embassy to serenade him: "Don't ever lose happiness and hope."
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. It's a message he is expected to press on Thursday, when he addresses President Juan Manuel Santos and Colombia's political elites, followed by hundreds of thousands of ordinary Colombians at a huge outdoor Mass in Bogota's Simon Bolivar park.
During his visit, Francis is expected to call on Colombian leaders to address the social and economic disparities that fueled the long civil conflict, and to encourage ordinary Colombians to balance their need for justice with forgiveness.
In a video message on the eve of his departure, Francis urged all Colombians to take a "first step" and reach out to one another for the sake of peace and the future.
"Peace is what Colombia has been looking for and working for for such a long time," he said. "A stable and lasting peace, so that we can see one another and treat one another as brothers, not as enemies."
A year after the Colombian government signed the peace accord with the FARC, the nation remains bitterly divided over the terms of the deal even as guerrillas have laid down their arms and begun returning to civilian life. Even the Catholic Church hierarchy, which was instrumental in facilitating the peace talks and is now spearheading the process of reconciliation, was divided over what many Colombians saw as overly generous terms offered to rebels behind atrocities.
Santos, the winner last year of the Nobel Peace Prize, thanked Francis for pushing negotiators during difficult moments of the four-year talks and said he was hopeful the pope's visit would inspire Colombians to take the next step in the path to true peace.
"Peace needs a solid foundation, and reconciliation is one of those pillars that we hopefully we will not only plant but also strengthen," Santos said.
Former President Alvaro Uribe, a fierce opponent of the peace deal, wrote a letter to the pope Tuesday expressing concern that the deal with the rebels had fueled a rise in drug trafficking and created economic uncertainties with the potential to destroy Colombia's social fabric.
Meanwhile, the nation's top drug fugitive, the target of a $5 million manhunt by U.S. authorities, appealed to the pope to pray that he and his fellow combatants be allowed to lay down their weapons as part of the peace process — a proposal the Colombian government has rejected.
"I'm convinced that the only way out of the conflict is dialogue," said Dairo Usuga, appearing publicly for the first time in a video published on social media. "The Catholic Church is a moral reference and we believe that with its prayers we can move forward in our goal of abandoning our weapons."
The plane flying Francis to Colombia left Rome on Wednesday morning and had to change its flight path to avoid Category 5 Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean.
A half-hour into the flight, Francis told journalists he wanted to "help Colombia in its path of peace."
He also asked for prayers for Colombia's neighbor Venezuela, whose problems are likely to demand some of his attention, hoping it finds "a good stability and dialogue with everyone." The Vatican last year sponsored dialogue between President Nicolas Maduro's government and the opposition and bishops from the country are slated to meet with Francis in Colombia as pressure builds on Venezuela's embattled socialist leader to yield power.
The highlight of Francis' trip comes Friday with a meeting and prayer of reconciliation between victims of Colombia's conflict and former guerrillas in Villavicencio, a city south of Bogota surrounded by territory long held by the FARC.
Francis will beatify two Colombian priests killed during decades of guerrilla warfare, declaring them martyrs who were killed out of hatred for the Catholic faith.
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. Some 300 people were sheltering in the church when it was hit during a three-way firefight between FARC rebels, right-wing militias and the army. At least 79 people died and 100 were injured.
In total, the conflict left more than 250,000 people dead, 60,000 missing and millions more displaced.
Ahead of Francis' arrival, Santos' government and the last remaining major rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, signed a bilateral cease-fire agreement, a significant step toward negotiating a permanent peace deal.
The Vatican No. 2, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said the key message of the trip is "the capacity to forgive: to forgive, and receive forgiveness."
Francis is the third pope to visit Colombia, following Pope Paul VI in 1968 and St. John Paul II in 1986. 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.
Associated Press writer Juan Zamorano contributed to this report.