After a half-century of continuous civil war in Colombia, a new story is beginning to emerge: Guerrillas in half of the fronts of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, can be openly Christian and not killed for it.

FARC leadership allows its militants to listen to Christian radio stations operated by the Bogota-based ministry, Colombia for Christ.

Currently, 29 comandantes — military commanders — are meeting for peace talks in Havana with representatives of the Colombian government. The talks began in November 2012.

The guerrillas’ lead negotiator is its secretariat member, Ivan Marquez, who identified three among the FARC’s Havana negotiators as Christians, and told World Watch Monitor that people are free to follow the religion of their choice.

These comandantes have an unlikely friend named Russell Martin Stendal, a missionary whom the group kidnapped more than 30 years ago. Stendal launched Colombia for Christ with his former captors in mind. His audacious vision: that all of the FARC can learn about Christianity and that, if embraced, it will change guerrillas’ hearts and minds. That alone will end the violence, Stendal said.

The Christian message, he said, is getting through, at least at the top. Whether it trickles down to the Colombian villages, where guerrillas continue to harass Christians, is another matter.

Stendal’s challenge is not limited to the FARC. The Associated Press reports Colombia’s regional prosecutor in Bogotá has accused the the 59-year-old missionary from Minnesota of playing “a starring role” in a “terrorist support network whose work consisted in setting up portable radio stations that were used to spread terrorist propaganda.”

Police called Stendal to the police station on Feb. 18 , where he surrendered, posting a short video on the way into jail. The next day, Feb. 19, a judge released Stendal, ruling the government’s evidence, based on the testimony of jailed demobilized FARC guerrillas eager to bargain for reduced sentences, was weak. She said Stendal, at risk to himself by venturing into war zones, has been a benefit to Colombia, not a threat.

Stendal has lived in Colombia since childhood, and his years of evangelistic work, supported by ministries in Colombia, the United States, Canada and Europe, has brought trouble to him from across the spectrum: the government, its right-wing paramilitaries, and leftist rebels. He has spent time in the custody of each, including his five-month abduction by rebels in 1983.

In recent months, however, the guerrilla leaders in Havana have welcomed visits from both Colombian and North American Christians. Among them are two men in their late 80s: a founder of the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship and a military retiree. Colombian visitors include Luis Humberto Montejo, a Christian who is the past governor of the Colombian department, or state, of Boyacá.

Marquez, when asked if Christians can be found within the FARC movement, singled out three “saints” among the negotiators seated with him at the lunch table. “San Noel, San Yuri and Santrich,” he said, referring to FARC officials Noel Perez and Yuri Camargo and to his right-hand man, Jesús Santrich.

Is there a San Ivan among them? Marquez smiled a little. “Not yet.”

And Stendal? “Martin is an apostle of peace whose words generate a favourable environment to advance the search for peace, who encourages us on our journey for the search for a political solution for the Colombian conflict,” Marquez told World Watch Monitor, referring to Stendal by his middle name.

“Martin is a man who is very kind with deep social feeling,” Santrich said, “detached from prejudices and transparent, with a conciliatory spirit that imparts and generates confidence, not only with his words but also with his deeds.” Stendal, he said, is “a person who has for a very long time been involved in communities trying to reach the poorest people.”

Signs of openness

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia began in 1964 as the military branch of the Colombian Communist Party. Since its inception, the FARC has carried out violent attacks not only against those it perceives as supporting the Colombian government, but also against the nation’s electricity towers, roads and bridges. It has financed itself through kidnapping, extortion, illegal mining, coca cultivation, cocaine production and narcotrafficking. Since 1997 the US State Department has listed the FARC as a foreign terrorist organization.

Historically the communist, and thus atheist, guerrilla movement has regarded the church as competition for Colombian hearts and minds. Through the years, the FARC has forcibly shuttered and razed churches, murdered pastors, extorted congregations, kidnapped missionaries and church leaders and forcibly conscripted church youth into its ranks.

But with the Cold War long over and the group’s old-guard leaders dead, signs of an openness toward Colombia’s church have emerged. Virginia Bouvier, a senior program officer for Latin America at the United States Institute of Peace, a congressionally created security agency, notes that in recent years the group has largely rejected violence as a means to bring about change.

During the past decade, Colombia’s armed forces have made huge strides against the rebels, whose options are limited: Bargain with the Colombian government or go back to fighting in the jungle — a war the rebels have been losing. In August 2012 President Juan Manuel Santos announced he had begun exploratory peace talks with the group. Along with land concessions for the nation’s poor and other demands, rebels themselves want a political voice via seats in the nation’s Senate and Chamber of Representatives, and to serve no jail time in exchange for laying down their weapons.

The public remains torn between wanting to see guerrillas punished for their crimes and a desire to end the war. A 2012 nationwide poll found that Colombians place most of the blame for the country’s violence on the guerrillas. The same poll found that 82 percent regard the guerrillas as criminals; only 13 percent said the rebels represent “revolutionary ideals.” In June 2014 by a narrow margin, President Juan Manuel Santos won re-election on a pro-talks platform. There have been protests both in favour and opposed to a settlement.

It’s “hard to say” what the takeaway is, if anything, from the election results regarding the FARC’s public standing and bargaining position, said Richard L. Millett, professor emeritus of history at Southern Illinois University, and member of the board of the American Committees on Foreign Relations. The outcome “indicates to me that a slight majority of Colombians are more interested in peace than in punishing the FARC,” Millett said.

Santos pressed forward, asking the United States in December for help. On Feb. 20, the U.S. responded with the appointment of a special envoy to the talks: Bernard “Bernie” Aronson, a former assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs. Both Santos and FARC leadership responded warmly.

Russ Stendal, right, meets with FARC negotiators Yuri Camargo, left; and Noel Pérez, center.
Russ Stendal, right, meets with FARC negotiators Yuri Camargo, left; and Noel Pérez, center.World Watch Monitor

Still hostile to the Church

Though the Spaniards arrived to conquer the land 500 years ago, many areas in Colombia, a country of rugged terrain the size of Texas and California combined, have never known institutional authority. The power vacuum provided room to illegal armed groups, such as the FARC and other insurgencies, to overcome local resistance and assert control.

In many areas of Colombia, “FARC has provided a role of the state,” Bouvier said. In addition to stepping in to serve as arbiter and social service provider, some of its projects, such as roads and bridges, benefit communities.

“Initially, it served a purpose that’s been helpful in some communities,” Bouvier said. In some communities, clashes erupted between FARC and community organizations over control, and “civil society was in the crossfire.”

The FARC still considers itself a defender against what it considers to be detrimental. An example is a July 2013 edict issued by FARC’s 32nd Front, which controls parts of southern Colombia. The 46-point edict, titled “Manual of coexistence for the smooth functioning of communities,” begins:

“We invite everyone to subject themselves to the following rules, which will better the proper functioning of communities and assure that improved coexistence, harmony and brotherhood will ensure the security and well-being of all.”

The edict asserts rules governing an array of activity, including curfews, price controls, mandatory work days for residents over age 15, and powers for “communal action boards” ranging from granting permission for residents and visitors to come and go, to property transactions and mandatory crop cultivation. It limits possession of cellular phones to two per family, bans phones with cameras “for security reasons,” and requires a registry of all incoming and outgoing calls from public telephones.

Among the 46 points is this: “Evangelism chapels will only be constructed in county seats.” Another: “Pastors and priests will celebrate their Masses only in churches in county seats.”

Though the FARC may have weakened generally, Christians continue to experience a high level of antagonism and violence, according to Open Doors International, a charity that supports Christians who live under pressure because of their faith. According to the organization, guerrillas recruited Juliana Karen Bueno, 13, into FARC’s 27 Front in July 2014, and killed her three days later.

Three months earlier, the FARC ordered 11 pastors in the sparsely populated Arauca department to stop preaching the Gospel, Open Doors said.

The FARC’s involvement with organized crime means Christians often get caught in the crossfire between the rebels, paramilitary groups and criminal gangs. In January 2014, a father and son, both recent Christian converts, were killed over a drug debt that pre-dated their conversion, Open Doors said. In December 2013, FARC forces in the jungled, heavily indigenous Vaupés department, where the guerrillas control much of the drug trafficking, drove out a pastor, his wife and two children for promoting Christianity.

The FARC tolerates little dissent within its ranks or outside it. Spin abounds. Members seem careful to say nothing against other Communist regimes. Upon mention of North Korea, Santrich said, “We aren’t going to criticize Korea, neither here nor anybody else because each one of these peoples has made its own efforts to create their own organizational systems.”

Nor is the Marxist ideology dead. Many Christians in Colombia refuse to send their children to take part in FARC “community work days.” Often the children return home rejecting church teachings, and many of them join the guerrillas. Stendal said the FARC’s practice of indoctrinating children is “very” prevalent.

“They’re indeed recruiting” into their ranks, a former Colombian worker for Open Doors International told World Watch Monitor. The worker’s name is being withheld to preserve the person’s security.

“Their recruitment target is Christian youth because they’re so obedient,” the former employee said.  And though the organization has documented no religiously motivated murders of pastors since 2009 at the hands of the FARC, “there have been other types of persecution — threats, extortion, forcible church closures, forbidding the preaching of the gospel.”

“The look in his eyes has changed. I’m certain that something has now touched his heart.”

–Helmer Idrebo, former the FARC 8th Front militia, speaking about Ivan Marquez

‘God has His foot in the door’

Stendal estimates that at least 10 percent of FARC guerrillas are now Christian. He notes that when guerrillas become Christians—and he said he’s seen hundreds of them do so—the last thing to change is their minds. Typically, he says, the transformation first is seen in their actions. They may question orders, or refuse to carry out evil deeds, or even flee the guerrilla group, though any of these are grounds for punishment up to execution.

But then, “By the time the Roman Empire became officially Christian, at least half all Romans were already secretly Christian,” he said. “Converted guerrillas get aggressive for the gospel.”

The battle ultimately never is against individuals or governments or even rebel movements, Stendal said. The battle is against evil, and that, he said, demands prayer.

“I am not so optimistic about the ‘peace process’ per se. The politicians involved are for the most part extremely corrupt and unreliable,” he said. “I am, however, optimistic as I see God changing many hearts on all the different sides of this conflict…. They’ve received us, and God has His foot in the door.

“God is definitely doing something in Colombia that will impact the entire world, and some of the guerrillas are part of it,” Stendal said. The rebel leadership’s changing attitude ultimately will affect ordinary Colombians, he said. “It means that there will be more freedom to openly worship the Lord.”

Helmer IdreboHelmer IdreboWorld Watch Monitor

The most crucial piece of evidence of change within the FARC is the movement’s lead negotiator, Ivan Marquez himself.

“I know the look in the eyes of Ivan Marquez,” said Helmer Idrebo, 52, who, under the nom de guerre Geronimo, spent 33 years as a guerrilla in Western Colombia. As head of the FARC 8th Front’s militia, his job was keeping the civilian population in line and obedient. He became a Christian in 2007.

He sees television news reports about the Havana peace talks. He has noticed a transformation in Marquez, his former colleague.

“A year ago the look in his eyes was completely different,” Idrebo said. “The look in his eyes has changed. I’m certain that something has now touched his heart. I don’t know what’s happened, but I do know that God has placed his hand on him.

“Where God places his hands, I’m sure he won’t take his hands off him if his work isn’t finished (because) God never leaves something halfway done,” he said.

“Ivan Marquez has been dirty, he’s been filthy, as I have been. But what’s touched Ivan was the hand of God that touched me, the same that changed me.”