Fr. Jesus Alberto Franco wears two bracelets as reminders of the marginalized Colombian people. Photo by Michael Swan

Priest advocates for peace in Colombia

  • March 29, 2015

Nobody has shot at Fr. Jesus Alberto Franco since Feb. 13, 2013. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the situation in Colombia is getting better.

There are still more than 5.7 million displaced people in Colombia. The country is as awash in guns, militias and guerillas as it ever was, despite on-again-off-again peace talks with rebels. More than 30,000 Colombians are officially listed as disappeared and far more not listed. In 2014 Colombia was Canada’s number five source of refugees. From 2003 to 2014, 15,925 Colombians were granted refugee status in Canada.

That the Colombian government, under orders from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, has to provide body guards and a car with bullet-proof glass for the Redemptorist priest is itself a measure of how far Colombia remains from peace.

The last time Franco’s car was targeted was after he named former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for obstructing court-ordered land restoration.  Franco and the Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace have been successful in Colombian courts and the Inter-American court. But the more they win the more danger it creates for Franco and his co-workers.

“To be with the community and to point out who are the people who threaten them is what actually puts me at risk,” Franco told The Catholic Register. “The risk is because I am accompanying the people of Colombia.”
Franco’s commission is supported by the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace. He has been touring Ontario during Lent, meeting with parishes and schools to explain the situation in Colombia and how the Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace benefits from international support.

Franco carries with him the two sides of hope — a certainty that Colombia can be better and the understanding that the country is not there yet. He wears bracelets on each of his wrists to remind him of the pain and the hope of his work.

His right wrist bears a loop of barbed wire with the sharp spikes flattened so they won’t slice him. Barbed wire has been used by militias hired by coal and other mining companies to fence people off their own land. But it has also been used by Franco’s own commission to help establish humanitarian zones, protect the displaced people in those zones and even to reclaim some stolen land.

His left wrist bears a colourful beaded bracelet given to him by indigenous villagers in Putumayo, near the Ecuadorian border. The handcrafted bracelet is obviously the work of love, but it’s also the work of people whose homes, families and culture are under constant threat.

“It’s the connection between me and the Putumayo people. It’s a reminder of the connection with them, with life, with the environment,” he said.

Franco isn’t saying peace and justice are just around the corner.

“I am realistic and I am hopeful. That’s why I work,” he said. “That’s why I work for these people — poor people.”

It has made a difference to Franco that Pope Francis so clearly understands the work of justice and peace in the Latin American context.

“He is able to speak from his own profound experience, to speak simply, from his life so full of these relationships and from a life that has been close to human suffering,” he said. “There is a different way of looking at ecclesiastical power here.”

Franco is very impressed by Development and Peace’s recurring campaign slogan, “Life before profit.” He sees his Colombian commission, Development and Peace and Pope Francis on the same side in asking for a politics and an economy that includes everyone and works in harmony with the environment. An economy that merely exploits people or the environment can’t be squared with the Gospel, he said.

“In the Our Father, that is our central prayer, one of the things we ask for is our daily bread. Our daily bread is an economic issue,” Franco said.

“We need a more just approach, whether national or international, to defend human life and the life of the planet.”

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