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Michael Gowen

Colombia, an enigma

I recently returned from a mission trip with Open Doors to Colombia, a country which I have a great love for.

FEATURES AUTHOR Michael Gowen BOGOTÁ 20 APRIL 2015 14:26 h GMT+1
Colombia View of a town in the Colombian region of Quindio. / Pedro Szekely (Flickr, CC)

I recently returned from a mission trip with Open Doors to Colombia, a country which I have a great love for. The people are outgoing, fun to be with it, enjoy life and consider themselves to be among the happiest people in the world; the country is amazingly beautiful, with enormous diversity of landscape and scenery; it is politically stable and has one of the most advanced legal systems in Latin America. Yet, alongside this, vast swathes of the country - especially the more remote rural areas - are ravaged by a brutal armed conflict which has been going on for over 50 years. Guerrilla groups, paramilitaries, criminal gangs, drug traffickers and the army are constantly fighting each other for control of territory, and therefore of the rich resources of this country. As in every conflict, it is innocent civilians who suffer. As many as 5.7 million people in Colombia have been forced to flee from their homes because of the conflict.

If you are a Christian in one of the big cities - Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and the like - you can live as comfortably (or uncomfortably, if you are poor) as in any other Latino country. But if you are living away from the cities, the picture is very different. In areas controlled by one of the illegal armed groups pastors are likely to be told when they can open their church and when they can hold services. If they step out of line they risk being shot - and many Christians are murdered every year simply because they oppose the culture of violence which the armed groups create and which they use to instil a climate of fear. The children of Christians are a particular target for forced recruitment by these armed groups - often while they are still young teenagers - therefore, many of them have to live away from their parents because it is no longer safe for them to stay at home.

On top of this, a new persecution dynamic has emerged in recent years. The Colombian government has given a large measure of autonomy to the many indigenous tribal groups in the country, so that they are completely self-governing in their designated areas - so much so that the national police and army are not allowed into these areas. But many of these indigenous cultures are strongly rooted in occult practices, so when indigenous people turn to Christ they are often persecuted by their own tribal authorities, the cabildos, for turning their backs on the traditions of the group. With no proper legal process, they are thrown into jail, publicly whipped, put in the stocks and pillory (punishments which disappeared in Europe 500 years ago) and have their land and possessions confiscated. Many indigenous Christians are forced to flee from their homes and live in another region, away from the authority of the cabildos.

The Bible tells us that if one part of the body of Christ suffers, every part suffers with it (1 Corinthians 12:26). So, what can we do to help our brothers and sisters who are suffering in Colombia? Most of all, we can pray - this may not seem very much, but the power of our prayers should never be underestimated. The roots of the conflict in Colombia are spiritual as well as political and material; and spiritual weapons are needed to break the spiral of violence which infects the whole society.

Our prayers express our solidarity with our suffering brothers and sisters in Colombia; and this solidarity in prayer is certainly having an effect. I learnt of high level army personnel who are turning to Christ; of Christians who are witnessing to members of the armed groups at great personal cost; of former guerrilla fighters who are now preaching Christ to the guerrillas; of indigenous Christians who continue to witness to their own people despite having spent time in jail for this; and of others who are willing to teach in the Christian indigenous schools while receiving no salary. Yes, God is at work in Colombia.

I visited a school in one of the safer parts of rural Colombia, which is funded by Open Doors. 60 boys and girls live there and are educated up to the age of 18. These children have either seen their parents killed or it is too unsafe for them to live where their parents are. Instead of violence, possible forced recruitment to an armed group, or worse, these children are now receiving a good education in a place of safety and security, so that they have a future ahead of them. Even though they have seen the price their parents have paid for following Christ, many of them want to become pastors and Christian leaders themselves.

I also learnt about Open Doors’ work with indigenous Christians; we were scheduled to travel to one of these areas, but the security situation there had deteriorated and was too dangerous for foreigners. Open Doors helps these believers so that they can become established in the areas where they have fled to escape persecution; can benefit from their rights which are guaranteed under Colombian law but which are often trampled on by the cabildos; and can educate their children in Christian schools, rather than the indigenous schools, where children are taught, for example, how to make sacrifices to the tribal gods.

If we wish to do more than pray, we can give to organisations working with persecuted Christians in Colombia or we can write to suffering Christians though them. Open Doors is one such internationally recognised organisation and details are available on their website. My support for Open Doors goes back over 40 years, to the time when I heard Brother Andrew, the founder, speak at the University of Manchester when I was a student there. His challenge to us has stayed with me ever since: “If one part of the body of Christ is suffering and we cannot feel its pain, are we artificial limbs?” May God open our ears to hear the cry of the suffering church in rural Colombia, and may we lift our prayers for them to the throne of heaven.




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