By Alejandro Bermúdez
Some suspected American involvement in the flawlessly executed rescue of 15 hostages from Colombian guerrillas last month. But Ingrid Betancourt, a former Colombian presidential candidate who was among those rescued, attributes it to "a miracle of God and the Virgin Mary."
And the story of her conversion to a fervent Marian devotion and how she made herself a Rosary with a rope during her captivity has filled Latin American newspapers and mesmerized audiences.
The former hostage of the Colombian Marxist guerrilla group FARC, freed with 14 other kidnapped individuals -- including three Americans -- during a bloodless tactical operation of the Colombian military, prayed loudly to Our Lady of Lourdes at the doorsteps of the French shrine, next to the local Archbishop Jacques Perrier, who was accompanying her and her family.
"I beg you, my dear Mary, I love you so much, take care of those who were left behind [in captivity] and who need you, who need your strength, your hope and your light," she said.
Since her release, Betancourt, a well-known politician from the Colombian Liberal Party and mother of two, devoted time to pilgrimages to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City and to Our Lady of Lourdes in France, where her husband and children are from. Before her kidnapping she was a self-described nonpracticing Catholic.
Betancourt remained in the hands of the FARC for six years and a few months ago appeared in a video, which showed that she was alive but suffering from severe health problems. She now says she plans to return to politics.
Many Colombians believe the success of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's plan to liberate the hostages is grounded in his open devotion to Mary, and an increasing number of Colombians, according to a recent local poll, believe that the Rosary was the "secret weapon" that made the rescuing of 15 hostages possible -- without a single shot fired. Uribe said shortly after the rescue that the operation "was guided in every way by the light of the Holy Spirit, the protection of Our Lord and the Virgin Mary."
Lidia Rios, spokeswoman for the Legion of Mary in Medellin, said: "We have prayed a lot to the Lord and to the Blessed Mother that this rescue would be successful, and we are not going to stop now. We are and will continue praying for this intention."
Rios believes the president's relative success in combating violence in Colombia is due to "the devotion and commitment he has to Jesus and Mary." She added that she believes Uribe has escaped attacks from his enemies thanks "to the Lord and the Virgin Mary, who have saved him and continue to watch over him, because he always prays to them, and he is working hand in hand with the Church."
Clara Rojas, who was Betancourt's close political adviser and was kidnapped alongside her, was freed several months ago and told reporters that during their captivity, "We prayed to the Virgin a lot. We prayed the Rosary, and we said that when we were free, we would thank her publicly."
The Colombian bishops have expressed their enthusiasm for the successful, bloodless release of the hostages, as well as their hope that the military blow to FARC, following the recent death of three of its key leaders, including its founder, Manuel Marulanda, will force the guerrillas to the negotiating table.
Cardinal Pedro Rubiano Saenz of Bogota, one of the most outspoken critics of FARC, said he hoped that "this event will help the guerrillas consider seriously the possibility of their reintegration to society and the release of all hostages."
Colombia's bishops have been cautious, however, about Betancourt's conversion.
"We certainly rejoice with her freedom and praise God for what seems to be the rediscovery of her faith," said Archbishop Ruben Salazar, the president of the Colombian Bishops Conference.
A source within the conference told OSV that the bishops are concerned about Betancourt's political history.
In fact, she started her public activity by defying many Church teachings and distributing condoms outside some Catholic churches. As a politician, she also ran on a liberal agenda filled with controversial cultural issues such as the massive distribution of artificial birth control, "sex education" and gay rights.
"Many of the politicians who support the same policies as Betancourt did in the past also claim to be 'devout' Catholics," the source told OSV.
In fact, according to a news story from the French news agency Agence France Presse, Betancourt has given an interview to the French Catholic monthly La Vie, in which she allegedly says that she will confront Pope Benedict XVI with questions about Catholic doctrine. Betancourt has been promised a meeting with the pope. Currently no date has been set.
Rojas, Betancourt's spokeswoman, strongly denied that her boss has questioned Catholic doctrine.
In the meantime, Colombia's bishops are waiting to see what kind of political program Betancourt will embrace when she returns to politics.
In a hopeful sign for the remaining 750 hostages in the hands of the guerrillas, FARC has given their first sign of desire to negotiate. In a recent statement posted on the Internet, they proposed mediation by Nicaragua's president.
Alejandro Bermúdez writes from Peru.
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