Colombia's priests keep paths of peace open

Last week's agreement between right-wing militia leaders and the government was facilitated by the Catholic clergy.

As bishop of Montería, Monsignor Julio César Vidal Ortiz has different kind of ministry. Instead of saying mass or handing out communion to parishioners, he has a more dangerous mission: helping right-wing death squads, known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), negotiate peace with the government. Montería is locally called the paramilitary capital of Colombia, and the right-wing militias control Father Vidal's turf.

Like scores of other Catholic priests in this deeply religious country, Vidal's role is as much peacekeeper as parish head. He has attended every meeting since talks began last July between the government and AUC leaders - many of them alleged killers and drug traffickers - at their hideaway in Córdoba in northwest Colombia.

Just a few weeks ago, the 10-month peace process appeared to be faltering after the mysterious disappearance - and presumed death - of AUC founder Carlos Castaño, allegedly at the hands of fellow AUC members. But despite the hurdles, Vidal, along with the government and the Organization of American States (OAS), last week convinced 10 AUC leaders to accept a "zone of concentration" in Córdoba, to which they will be confined for the duration of negotiations.

In exchange, the government will lift arrest warrants - and thus, US extradition requests - for these leaders and their bodyguards, as long as they are in the zone. The Army will be allowed to patrol the zone's perimeter, and an international body, led by the OAS and the church, will regulate it. Thus Vidal and his colleagues will be key to the possible demobilization of some 20,000 rank-and-file paramilitaries.

During Colombia's 40-year war between the government, left-wing guerrillas, and right-wing death squads, the Catholic Church has often been the only channel for dialogue between the groups. It has helped negotiate previous peace deals and secure the release of civilian hostages. Amid death threats, kidnappings, and assassinations, Vidal and priests like him have taken the biblical promise, "Blessed are the peacemakers," as a mandate.

"We are the only means of communications with the armed groups," Vidal says. "I am not doing this for extraordinary reasons. It is something to which I am obligated" as a priest.

During government negotiations with feared AUC leaders, Vidal says he begins each meeting by offering a prayer. "In the meetings, we recite the invocation of God, we ask for wisdom, and we listen," he says.

His main role at such meetings is to act as a catalyst when the two parties reach sticking points, of which there have been many since negotiations began, he says, such as the AUC's opposition to their extradition to the US on drug- trafficking charges.

Amid varied attempts to resolve Colombia's complex conflict that began in 1964 as an effort by Marxists to overthrow the government but has increasingly become a battle for the country's vast drug wealth, the church has played a key role in negotiating with Colombia's three major armed groups: the AUC, the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and their smaller cousin, the National Liberation Army (ELN).

In 1984, the church was instrumental in the first-ever peace accord between the FARC and President Belisario Betancur. The cease-fire didn't hold, but church leaders in 1995 established the National Conciliation Commission that has served as the main conduit for all subsequent peace talks. Church leaders further served on the team that, under former President Andres Pastrana, launched the peace talks with the FARC that ultimately failed in 2002.

Fernando Giraldo, dean of political science at Bogotá's Javeriana University, says that as President Álvaro Uribe has emphasized a military solution to the conflict, rather than a negotiated one, the church's role has become even more "more important and transcendental."

Aside from mediating talks with the paramilitaries, the church forms part of the extragovernment commission charged with reaching out to the leftist ELN. And the government has no direct contact with the FARC, so the church has become the only means of communication with them.

It is trying to negotiate a swap of jailed rebels for hundreds of kidnapped Colombians, a goal urgently desired by the FARC yet basically rejected by Mr. Uribe. For scores of families, the church represents their only hope to reunite with loved ones.

Yet acting as peace brokers has a steep price. The government says that armed militants have killed 56 priests and nuns over the past two decades. The most infamous murder was of Bishop Isaias Duarte, who was gunned down in March 2002 in what investigators suspect was a FARC hit. And Pope John Paul II condemned the 2002 kidnapping of Bishop Jorge Enrique Jiménez, who was later rescued by the government.

The mounting violence against priests has caused some to suggest that the church is no longer a neutral party but acting in concert with the hard-line government. But Monsignor Jaime Prieto, bishop of Barrancabermeja in the province of Santander, illustrates the delicate balancing act that most priests have to play as de facto mediators of the Colombian conflict.

Father Prieto recently received a "pretty aggressive" e-mail from a right-wing faction that accused him of favoring the ELN. Prieto calmly responded, via e-mail, that as a chief government negotiator with the ELN, his job required him to spend a disproportionate amount of time talking to them. Prieto says he's never had an actual attempt on his life and professes not to be afraid of the risks he takes.

"My motivation is to achieve the salvation of the people, albeit with danger to my own life," he says. "It isn't easy [for the armed groups] to target priests with threats and assassination attempts, because what is least convenient for them is the creation of martyrs."

Prieto stresses that as a priest, he must act in the name of God and not at the behest of the state. "The church has to talk with everyone...." he says. "Our goal is to fight against evil, not against the evildoer.... To fight against sin, not against the sinner."

In search of peace, Prieto has hiked as long as 12 hours to reach remote guerrilla encampments and survived crossfire. He refuses bodyguards, saying it's better to sacrifice his own life than that of others. The Bible is his only traveling companion.

"One feels the fear in the moment," he says, "but it is not big enough to sacrifice the job."

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