According to its Constitution, Colombia is a secular state – however, its society does not always concur with this definition. The arrival of the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, in the country on 6 August reaffirms the importance of religion. The Argentine pontiff is popular in Latin America, and his visit could potentially be vital in consolidating the peace agreement signed by the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the leftist guerrilla group, FARC. His appeals for calm in Venezuela have heeded modest gains in the struggle to resolve that country’s ongoing turmoil.
His five-day visit to Colombia, beginning on 6 September, includes four cities and is budgeted to cost around US$6.8m – a burden which will be footed entirely by the national government. President Santos justified this expenditure by claiming that the visit of His Holiness “will help Colombians unite peacefully around the idea of a fairer, more caring and equitable country”.
The visit also comes amid stark political polarisation in Colombia, with presidential elections due in May next year. This division also encroaches upon the sphere of religion, setting the stage for an interesting debate about the role of religion in domestic politics.
Reconciling a Catholic society governed by a secular state?
Pope Francis will become the third Pontiff to visit the country and, for a major segment of the population, his arrival is of tantamount importance. According to the Pew Research Center, 79% of Colombians consider themselves Catholic and 93% have a favourable perception of Pope Francis – underlining his transcendent popularity. Only Brazil, Mexico, the United States, the Philippines and Italy are home to more Catholics than Colombia’s 36 million.
With these figures in mind, there is an evident tension for politicians who must operate according to the constitution whilst claiming to represent an overwhelmingly Catholic citizenry. Last year, for example, the government was caught up in a controversial debate over a booklet that explained concepts related to sex, gender and sexual orientation, seeking to explain to teachers how to discourage discrimination in the classroom.
This infuriated many practicing Catholics in the country, who believed that their children were being indoctrinated. Gina Parody, Colombia’s education minister, who is openly gay, also proposed mixed bathrooms and changes to uniforms, leading her to be accused of attempting “gay colonisation” in Colombia. Resistance to the publication of the booklet brought thousands to the streets to march in protest in favour of “family values” in August of last year.
Politics and religion never far apart
Not shy of the public eye, former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez’s leadership of the triumphant “No” campaign against the implementation of the peace deal agreed by the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by their Spanish acronym, FARC). The victory was supported by falsities and half-truths chosen to rouse emotional responses to the referendum’s subject.
Another conservative legislator, Alejandro Ordoñez, Colombia’s inspector general at the time, declared that the government were “using peace as an excuse to impose their gender ideology.” In his victory speech, Uribe espoused the “need to stimulate family values (…) defended by our religious leaders and moral pastors”.
As in the case of the booklet, religious groups in Colombia played an exceptionally important role in the outcome of the referendum – an issue with far more at stake. According to some estimates, almost two million protestants voted against the accord, contributing to this outcome. In a vote where the difference between the Yes and No was a mere 53,000 people, this was a significant percentage. Some presidential candidates have already noted the unity of the protestant vote and have begun to root their campaigns in church values.
The Pope as peacemaker
Pope Francis has become a significant player in the global politics. He received a standing ovation in front of the US Congress following a speech on immigration, poverty and climate change; he hosted a meeting between the United States and Cuba, praising their restoration of diplomatic ties; and even helped to build bridges with the Russian Orthodox Church and the Grand Iman of Al-Alzhar. His actions on the world stage have become a powerful political tool stretching beyond Catholicism.
As for Colombia, he pushed the peace dialogue since its conception, using not only his influence in public but also meeting with both President Santos and former President Alvaro Uribe. The latter opposed the peace accords, believing them not to be harsh enough on the FARC. Pope Francis’ arrival, where the implementation of the agreements have already begun, is evidence of his importance in ending the longest intra-state conflict in Latin America.
Parallel to the FARC peace process, ongoing negotiations between the National Liberation Army (or ELN, its Spanish acronym) rebel group and the government have led to both parties agreeing a bilateral ceasefire before the Pope’s visit in order to “honour the visit, and for the world to acknolewdge the effort in achieving a lasting peace for Colombia”.
The huge cost of this trip, as well as the headlines it has created, is explained by the importance that religion plays in Colombian domestic affairs. The appearence of right-wing political parties with strong congressional presences will be key in the 2018 elections in Colombia and another stark reminder of the peril of underestimating the power of religious values in Colombians.