The Catholic Church in Colombia has expressed its “immense happiness” at the possibility of peace talks between the country’s government and rebel group ELN.
The archbishop of Bogota, Ruben Salazar, spoke on Thursday during the opening of the 5th Catholic Exhibition. After the Tuesday release of Canadian engineer Jernoc Wobert, who had been held hostage by the ELN since January, President Juan Manuel Santos said his government was “ready to begin peace talks […] as soon as possible.”
“We have always said that it isn’t enough to have a dialogue only with the [main rebel group] FARC,” the archbishop said. “It is also necessary and imperative to have a dialogue with the ELN, who have their own unique characteristics.”
The government has been in dialogue with the FARC since November in an attempt to end Colombia’s 49-year armed conflict.
Salazar also emphasized the Catholic Church’s willingness to help with any potential negotiations with the ELN: “As always, we are ready to help make sure that the conversation continues, that the dialogue continues, that it isn’t interrupted, that those difficulties that lie in the path ahead do not destroy [the peace] that is so desperately needed.”
The archbishop was careful to point out that the Church would not directly participate in the negotiations, but will “create favorable conditions so that the dialogue between the government and the ELN is successful.”
He also emphasized the lines of communication that exist between the rebel group and the Church. The archbishop of Cali, Dario de Jesus Monsalve, and the head of Colombia’s Jesuits, Francisco de Roux, were part of the humanitarian mission, headed by aid organization the Red Cross, that worked with the government and the ELN to secure the release of kidnapped engineer Jernoc Wobert on Tuesday.
“We have a certain amount of communication with the leaders of the ELN,” confirmed Salazar. “We have always asked that they lay down their arms and really focus on creating a dialogue and fully reintegrating into civil society.”
Amongst those ELN members who have died during Colombia’s armed conflict is Camilo Torres, a Catholic priest and pioneer of Liberation Theology. He was killed by the Colombian army in 1966 two years after the rebel group’s birth.
If the government and the ELN do begin peace talks it will be for the sixth time, the last attempt came during the Presidency of Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010).
In the last 10 years, the ELN have lost at least 2500 men, leaving an estimated 1,500. Despite their losses, the leadership has been more or less unchanged since 1998, when supreme commander Manuel Perez died of natural causes. This is likely because most of the leaders live abroad.
In the last few months, they have been fighting with the FARC in the northeastern department of Arauca, on the Venezuelan border. So far this year they have taken five foreigners hostage.
- La iglesia católica y su fe en la negociación con el ELN (El Espectador)
- Así llegaría el Eln a un sexto intento de paz (El Tiempo)