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Christians in these rural areas often find themselves in the middle of two armed groups fighting each other for territory and for corridors through which to traffic their illicit goods.
Back in 2007 I visited Colombia with a Member of the European Parliament responsible for human rights. We went to a number of townships in the south of Córdoba, a department in the Northeast of Colombia noted for its cattle ranching. At that time the area was controlled by paramilitary groups, who were in the process of demobilising as the result of a peace agreement which had been negotiated between the government and the AUC (United Self-defence Forces of Colombia), the umbrella organisation for the paramilitary groups.
In Tierra Alta, where these negotiations had taken place, we met the recently demobilised paramilitary commander nicknamed ’08’. He complained bitterly to us that the government was not allocating sufficient resources to put into practice the promises which they had made in the peace agreement. Consequently, even though the AUC was being wound up, many paramilitary fighters were refusing to demobilise and so the AUC was breaking up into smaller groups, many of them joining up with the drug traffickers. So the situation which we encountered in rural Córdoba was actually more complex and more dangerous than it had been before the peace agreement was signed.
Recently I had the opportunity to revisit the same region, accompanied by people who know it well and who are giving help to the persecuted church. As it happens, 12 years later there is another peace process going on. This time, however, it is the guerrillas of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) who are demobilising. As we travelled around, I was shocked to hear again and again exactly the same complaints as in 2007: the government is not fulfilling the promises which it made in the peace agreement and is not designating the necessary resources for its effective implementation.
In 2016, after four years of difficult negotiations, a peace agreement between the government of Colombia and the FARC was presented to the world, and President Juan Manuel Santos duly received his reward in the form of the Nobel Peace Prize. After so many years of conflict there was a genuine desire on both sides to do all that was necessary to demobilise the FARC guerrillas and integrate their former fighters into civil society.
Then came the elections of June 2018, and Santos was replaced by the opposition candidate, Ivan Duque, a protege of the powerful politician Álvaro Uribe, who himself was president of Colombia from 2002-2010 and had negotiated the peace agreement with the paramilitaries. Uribe’s father was murdered by FARC guerrillas in 1983, and this has left him with an inveterate hatred towards them, a hatred that makes it inconceivable for him to think of negotiating with the the FARC. His only goal is to defeat and destroy them; and Duque is taking the same line as his mentor.
Therefore, although the peace agreement still exists on paper, the government is showing very little enthusiasm for moving it forward. Its implementation is being starved of resources, and there are even sections of the government and the army which are secretly working to undermine the agreement, for example by a campaign of defamation against the FARC.
While these political machinations are going on at high levels, it is the ordinary farmer in the rural areas of Colombia who is suffering. As in 2007, armed groups are fragmenting once again. FARC dissidents who did not want to demobilise have created the FARC-EP (FARC Popular Army), whilst others have joined the guerrillas of the ELN (National Liberation Army) or other illegal armed groups such as the criminal gangs. As they see the peace process collapsing around them, many former fighters who had demobilised have once again taken up arms and are fighting at the side or one or other of the armed groups.
In this situation of confusion and chaos, the suffering of Colombian Christians in rural areas is particularly grievous. There is a systematic attempt by the armed groups to silence the communities who happen to live near the corridors that they are using for transporting cocaine, arms and other goods. Community leaders and pastors are the first target. Either they keep quiet – and then the whole community is cowed into silence – or they are murdered. Thus a climate of fear is created, where subsistence farmers have the unwelcome choice of staying on their land and going along with the armed group (or groups), or fleeing and leaving behind their possessions, houses and livestock.
Christians in these rural areas often find themselves in the middle of two armed groups fighting each other for territory and for corridors through which to traffic their illicit goods. One pastor recounted to us how his congregation was caught in the middle of a three-hour gun battle during one Sunday service. So many people crammed into the church for refuge that there was not even room to lie down on the floor for safety.
It is particularly difficult in such conflicts when one of the armed groups comes to a village and asks for help – food, money, spies. Refusing them would risk you being killed on the spot. Then a few days later a second armed group, opposed to the first one, arrives. They know that you have given help to their enemies, so in their anger they kill a number of people and destroy houses and businesses as a reprisal.
In the past when there were problems, pastors and social leaders knew who was in control of their zone and where to go to make a complaint. With the multiplication and fragmentation of the armed groups, often they do not know exactly who is in control, or where they could find the leaders of a particular group. Even if they know where they are, often they are not allowed to travel to the area where they are based.
The farmers in the areas which we visited are very poor, so their churches have very few resources. So most pastors need to find another job in order for them and their family to survive. Yet, still the armed groups come looking for a ‘vaccination’: money or goods to fund their activities. One pastor told us how his church had nothing which they could give to the armed group, but they refused to believe him. They searched and found nothing, so then they stole all his animals, leaving him with no means of support for him and his family.
We were received with great joy at the pastors’ conferences where we spoke. They told us, ‘We feel totally forgotten by the state. Your mere presence here with us gives us hope.’ When one member of the body of Christ suffers, the whole body suffers.
I have never forgotten the words of Brother Andrew, founder of Open Doors, an organisation which helps the persecuted church globally. 45 years ago he spoke to the students in my university and challenged us, ‘If the persecuted church, which is a member of the body of Christ, is suffering and you are not able to feel its pain, are you an artificial limb?’
WHAT CAN WE DO?
What can you do to help our brothers and sisters in Colombia who are suffering and who are members of the body of Christ? Few of you are likely to be able to travel to Colombia. But each one of you can pray – and prayer is the most powerful weapon that we possess, more powerful than all the rifles, machetes or other arms which are in the hands of the armed groups.
Let us pray that our Colombian brothers and sisters continue firm in their faith, that they will have opportunities to announce the good news of the Gospel to whomever they come in contact with, especially to fighters in the armed groups. Let us pray that they receive material and spiritual help and that they can hold a neutral position, not being perceived as linked in with any one group involved in the conflict.
Let us pray too for the leaders of all of the armed groups involved in the conflict: the army, the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, the criminal gangs. For it is the leaders who determine the course of the conflict. Let us bless these leaders, even those who are persecuting the church. In doing this, we will be following the exhortation of our Lord Jesus, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you will be children of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45).
Personally speaking, I have found it really difficult to bless those people who are killing and harming my brothers and sisters; but it is essential that we fight on the basis of love, not violence or hatred. Once we have blessed them, we can ask our Father for his heavenly strategy which he would like to put into practice on the earth, then we can pray according to what he has revealed to us.
Is there hope for Colombia, after 70 years of continual internal conflict and so many peace processes which have gone nowhere? Yes, there is always hope. The apostle Paul encourages us who follow Christ “not to grieve like those who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). If we analyse the situation politically, we may well become depressed. My heart bleeds for Colombia. I see no obvious way out of the violence which overwhelms so much of the country. But we are not like those who have no hope. “God is greater than our hearts and he knows everything” (1 John 3:20).
To the Colombian Christians whose lives are blighted by the ongoing violence, and to those of us who are praying for them, John would say, “You, dear children, have overcome the false prophets of violence, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
Michael Gowen worked for the European Comission in Brussels for 25 years. He has visited Colombia several times in the last years, offering Christian perspectives on the conflict.