Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Betancourt: meeting pope 'a dream come true'

By ARIEL DAVID, Associated Press WriterFormer hostage Ingrid Betancourt on Monday was able at last to thank Pope Benedict XVI, the man whose voice she said reached deep into the Colombian jungle "like a light" to comfort her during captivity.

Betancourt, who was rescued in July by Colombia's military after more than six years in the hands of leftist guerrillas, said her private audience with the pope was "a dream come true."

"From my first moment of freedom I wanted to meet and embrace" him, she said at a news conference in Rome, during which she was frequently on the verge of tears.

The former presidential candidate in Colombia credited her religious faith with helping her survive in the years following her kidnapping by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as FARC.

She told Benedict that she found comfort in her Catholic faith and in the knowledge that millions of people in Europe and across the world were calling for the kidnappers to free her and her fellow prisoners.

Betancourt told the pope that once, after a daylong forced march between rebel camps in the jungle, she collapsed in a hammock, exhausted and dispirited, only to switch on the radio and hear Benedict's voice speaking of her plight.

"It's hard to explain the psychological effect this has on a prisoner, what it meant to know we hadn't been forgotten at a time when we thought we didn't exist," Betancourt said. "The voice of the Holy Father was like a light."

Betancourt said she told the pope about her distress for the hundreds of hostages FARC still holds and her concern for Colombia's future after decades of civil war.

"The pope is pained by the suffering of the prisoners," she said. "I know his prayers are also dedicated to obtaining the freedom of all the prisoners and peace in my country."

Betancourt's eyes filled with tears as she made repeated appeals to the heads of FARC to lay down their arms and free the remaining hostages.

"The world is watching you, the world is asking you to make space in your hearts for love and forgiveness, as there is in my heart," she said.

Betancourt was accompanied by her mother and other family members as she arrived at the papal summer retreat of Castel Gandolfo, near Rome, to meet with the pope.

TV footage showed Betancourt, a black lace veil covering her head, as she shook hands with Benedict and smiled at him.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the aim of Betancourt's trip was "to thank the pope for his prayer, his commitment, his remarks in favor of all the hostages and her personally."

Betancourt "was very moved, very grateful to have this possibility," said Lombardi. He added the private meeting lasted about 20 minutes.

The pope had previously appealed for an end of kidnappings in Colombia and had met with Betancourt's mother at the Vatican in February.

After the audience, Betancourt told reporters she had not yet decided if she would return to Colombian politics, saying she now wants to concentrate on helping her fellow hostages and all those who suffer around the world.

"I want to serve my country, but not necessarily in the political arena," she said.

While Betancourt is in Italy, she is also meeting with political leaders, including the country's president, and she has visited the Sant'Egidio Community, a Rome-based lay Catholic group that mediates world conflicts

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