In conflict-torn Colombia, redemption with a view

Las Lajas (Colombia) (AFP) - Perched above a lush chasm in the mountains of southern Colombia sits a towering gray basilica where both victims and fighters caught up in the country's half-century conflict seek redemption.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in this deeply Catholic country make the climb to the edge of the Guaitara river canyon each year to visit Our Lady of the Rosary of Las Lajas, a neo-Gothic sanctuary that sits 2,900 meters (9,500 feet) above sea level in the Andes mountains, near the Ecuadoran border.

The region has been hit hard by a messy conflict that has drawn in leftist rebel groups, right-wing paramilitaries, drug traffickers and the Colombian army over the years.

Colombians on all sides of the conflict come to Las Lajas to pray, find comfort and seek forgiveness.

"It's a bit of a paradox. We administer the sacrament of penance to guerrillas, paramilitaries, soldiers, drug traffickers and also people whose husbands or sons are missing, whose siblings have been kidnapped -- everyone involved in the conflict," said Alberto Cobo Molano, a 61-year-old priest who has worked at the sanctuary for 12 years.

Las Lajas was built at the site where, in 1754, an indigenous Colombian woman and her deaf daughter took shelter from a storm. They said the Virgin Mary appeared before them as they huddled amid the stones from which the sanctuary takes its name.

A small chapel was built there in the 18th century, and the current basilica was built from 1916 to 1949.

With its Old World architecture of gray stone and soaring spires, it looks strangely out of place at the edge of this gaping green canyon in the South American tropics.

Its entrance sits at the far side of a stone bridge high above the river, where worshippers can take in the stunning views on their way to pray.

- Search for peace -

Father Cobo Molano says he has heard confession from fighters on all sides of the conflict, right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas alike.

Though their crimes are "monstrous," they are all capable of redemption, he said.

"Just because they're caught up in these troubles doesn't mean we should consider them directly responsible. This conflict is the consequence of a social disorder we've been suffering from for 60, 70, 80 years in Colombia. We are reaping what we have sown," he said.

The Colombian conflict has its roots in deep economic inequalities that have long split the country, triggering social strife that led to the founding of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) -- the two remaining guerrilla groups -- in the 1960s.

It has killed more than 220,000 people and uprooted more than six million. Rights groups say atrocities have been committed on all sides.

Jorge Pinchao, a 67-year-old farmer attending a recent mass at Las Lajas, spoke of the heavy toll the conflict has taken on his own life: three of his children were killed by paramilitaries.

"It's tough. They open fire and we're caught in the middle," he told AFP.

Pinchao said that despite recent announcements of progress at peace talks between the government and the FARC, he is skeptical the nearly three-year-old negotiations will succeed.

For Father Cobo Molano, the key will be creating "space for communion" to bring together all Colombians.

"All efforts for peace, coexistence and reconciliation are welcome," he said, urging the ELN to join the FARC at the negotiating table.

But the biggest challenge will come after a peace accord is signed, he warned.

"The post-conflict period will be hard work for everyone, across the social, political, economic, cultural and religious spectrum," he said. "We have to integrate our society."