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article imagePope to beatify priest victims of Colombia's wars

By Daniela QUINTERO (AFP)     Sep 5, 2017 in World

The Catholic Church has not been immune to Colombia's decades of bloodshed and on Friday, Pope Francis will use his visit to beatify a bishop and a priest murdered by guerrilla groups.

Francis will set Colombian priest Petro Maria Ramirez and Bishop Jesus Jaramillo on the road to sainthood during a special beatification mass in the city of Villavicencio.

At the same time, he will draw attention to the 89 Catholic priests and two bishops killed during the decades of war between state forces, leftist guerrillas, narco gangs and right-wing paramilitaries.

Ramirez was hacked to death with a machete but forgave his leftist executioners as he lay dying in the street, according to the head of doctrine of the Colombian Bishops' Conference, Jorge Bustamante.

As he faced his assassins, Ramirez shouted "I want to die for Christ," Bustamante told AFP.

Ramirez was killed at the very outset of the conflict, in April 1948, a day after the assassination of Liberal leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan set off an unmerciful conflict between Colombia's leftist and right-wing armed groups.

Gaitan's followers were responsible, accusing Ramirez and the Church of allying with its adversaries and of inciting the death of liberals from pulpits up and down the country.

Beatification is the first step toward sainthood in the Catholic Church, but locals in his native town of La Plata already knew of Ramirez's saintly demeanor when he was alive.

"Everyone had faith in him. Pilgrims would come to see him almost every day," Rodrigo Fajardo, 70, told AFP.

Ramirez, who was 49 when he was killed, is buried nearby.

- 'We made a mistake' -

Nearly four decades later, in 1989, Bishop Jesus Jaramillo was hauled out of his car and shot by leftist guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN), who at the time were led by a Spanish priest.

The ELN took issue with the bishop for being too close to the military authorities.

The next day, Jaramillo's bullet-riddled body was found dumped in rubbish, but without his chain and his bishop's ring.

"I think he was murdered because of his impartiality and his condemnation of violence, because he did not let himself be smeared by an ideology," said Alvaro Hernandez, pastor of the local church in Jaramillo's hometown of Arauca.

The ELN chief at the time, Spanish priest Manuel Perez, died of illness in 1998.

The ELN had emerged in 1964 under the influence of the Cuban Revolution and Liberation Theology, a Marxist-leaning religious movement within the Church.

Now the last active rebel movement in Colombia, the ELN this week signed a ceasefire deal with the government ahead of the pope's visit.

Pablo Beltran, the ELN's chief negotiator in talks with the government, described Jaramillo's murder as a "mistake."

"We recognize, and we apologize, for that mistake," Beltran said in a radio interview ahead of the beatification.

The Colombian conflict has left 260,000 people confirmed dead, 60,000 unaccounted for and seven million displaced.

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