Colombian peace agreement is start of change, says Vatican official

CARTAGENA, Colombia (CNS) -- To chants of "No more war," the Colombian government and Marxist rebels signed an agreement to end Latin America's last armed conflict, which the Vatican's secretary of state called "the start of a process of positive change for the country."

Under an agreement signed Sept. 26 with a pen made from a bullet -- inscribed with "Bullets wrote our past. Education, our future," -- the country's largest rebel group, known as the FARC, will lay down weapons and soldiers will submit to a process of reintegration into society. If Colombians ratify the peace accord in a plebiscite Oct. 2, a civil war dating to the mid-1960s will be brought to an end.

"I would like to ask for forgiveness from all the victims for all the pain that we have caused during this war," said Rodrigo Londono Echeverri, also known as Timoleon Jimenez, leader of the FARC, a Spanish acronym for Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Londono and President Juan Manuel Santos shook hands and smiled before a large crowd in Cartagena, on Colombia's Caribbean coast.

Hours earlier, Cardinal Pietro Parolin said the "country of Catholics has come together in prayer." The Vatican official spoke before roughly 2,500 who had gathered in St. Peter Claver Church in Cartagena. "Colombians have lived through forced displacements and violence. ... And that is why we need to find the road to peace and justice."

The liturgy touched on the historic significance of the day, which brought the country of 47 million people a step closer to ending a conflict that claimed the lives of at least 220,000 people and forced roughly 5 million from their homes and communities.

The war outlasted internal conflicts in other Latin American countries and left Colombia with a long-standing reputation for violence and bloodshed.

"Colombia should begin to ease the pain of so many of its people by working to build a better future and by rebuilding the dignity of those who have suffered," Cardinal Parolin said, adding that Pope Francis has paid close attention to the peace process in Colombia.

The service was attended by foreign dignitaries, including 15 presidents, three former presidents, and 27 foreign ministers -- including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry -- who filed into the church wearing white and commenting on the historic significance of the day.

"I hope it will inspire other countries in the world that are in conflict, such as Syria, where people are killing each other. It can show them that peace is possible," said Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, on the church's steps in a national broadcast prior to the liturgy.

Cardinal Parolin said the peace agreement, the culmination of four years of negotiations, is a historical marker for a country that has been deeply affected by the war.

"We don't consider this just another event," he said. "This is a manifestation of the trust on the part of the Colombian people."