Colombians are celebrating after more than half a century of civil war was brought to an end on 23 June with the signing of a ceasefire between the government and the largest rebel group – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. But what will the anticipated confirmation of a full peace deal mean for the Church in Colombia?
As the BBC explains, Colombia, in common with many Latin American nations, evolved as a highly segregated society, split between the traditionally rich families of Spanish descent and the vast majority of poor Colombians, many of whom are of mixed race.
This latter group provided a natural constituency for left-wing insurgents – with two main groups: the FARC and the smaller, weaker ELN (National Liberation Army) – which is yet to start its own announced peace talks with the government.
At the other end of the political spectrum are right-wing paramilitaries, with roots in vigilante groups set up decades ago by landowners for protection against the rebels.
In a country where the presence of the state has always been weak, the result was a grinding war on multiple fronts. The longest-running insurgency in the Western Hemisphere has left an estimated 220,000 people dead and almost seven million displaced.
Especially at risk have been those with high-profile roles in the community – including church and other social leaders.
Impact on the Church
Colombia is No. 46 on the 2016 Open Doors World Watch List, which ranks the 50 countries in which it is most difficult to live as an active Christian. Dennis Petri, Latin America analyst for Open Doors, says violence related to organised crime is the main factor behind the persecution of Christians in the region. And in Colombia, there has been no greater exponent than the FARC.
Since its inception in 1964, the FARC has murdered pastors, destroyed churches, extorted congregations, kidnapped missionaries and church leaders, and forcibly conscripted church youth into its ranks to serve as child soldiers.
And Petri says that, despite the agreement, he does not expect the violence to end.
“Violence in Colombia will continue, despite the peace agreement,” he said. “In areas where the government has lost control of public security, drug cartels and illegal armed groups still continue to operate with impunity. This means that these criminal gangs will continue to target Christians.
“It must be remembered that Colombia has been at war with itself for decades. It will not be that easy to achieve lasting peace.
“My main concern is with the scope of the peace talks: they only bind the FARC and now the ELN. Other guerrilla and counter-insurgency groups and criminal gangs present in the country will continue to be active. Moreover, there are concerns that the guerrilla members on the ground will not follow the peace agreement negotiated by their leaders and will continue with their very lucrative drug-trafficking business. This implies that the pressure both guerrilla groups are placing on all those who practise their Christian faith in rural communities is not likely to cease in the short term.”
The Archbishop of Tunja and President of the Episcopal Conference of Colombia, Mgr. Luis Augusto Castro Quiroga, has also spoken of his concerns.
“We need a clear sign that the signature of the agreement is not just a symbolic act. The guerrillas must deliver and destroy the weapons publicly,” he said, as reported by Fides. “The people want to immediately see the effects of the agreement.”
Liz Poveda, from Open Doors Colombia, says part of the challenge is to raise awareness that the Church in Colombia continues to come under threat from criminal groups, including the FARC.
“In Colombia there is no official recognition of the persecuted Church,” she said. “There is not state protection to people who are threatened for exercising their faith, as it is given to unionists, politicians and others. We are not for or against the process; we just want to respond to the need of the persecuted Church. The children of the murdered pastors, their wives, the outcasts, and many more, are already living the post-conflict and ask that their truth is heard and that the martyrs of the Christian Church are not erased from the memory of the country.”
Former President Alvaro Uribe Velez, who led a military crackdown against the FARC, did not join in the general jubilation: he called current President Juan Manuel Santos a “traitor” and said the deal with the FARC amounts to an amnesty “as the word ‘peace’ is wounded”.
Meanwhile, The New York Times reported that Luis Mendieta, a former national police chief held captive by the FARC for 12 years, has warned that instead of disarming, FARC guerrillas may join criminal gangs. He added that while the FARC has agreed to lay down its arms, the group will continue to extort Colombians in the countryside it controls.
“The FARC must now not just begin a ceasefire but end all their hostilities. The two aren’t the same thing,” he said.
However, Gonzalo Sánchez, director of Colombia’s Centre for Historical Memory, is more positive. “This is the first negotiation that has dealt with the root of the problem that has led these guerrilla groups to emerge in the first place,” he told The Guardian. “Other negotiations aimed to resolve the problem of weapons and not the social problems of the people.”
The Guardian reports that the first point tackled by negotiators in the peace talks was the sharp inequality and lack of development in Colombia’s rural areas, one of the banners of the FARC when it first began to take shape as a group of peasant leaders demanding social justice.
However, Sánchez added: “The ELN is missing out on the moment and it is going to be a problem for society and a problem for the FARC and for the ELN itself.”
(The government has demanded that the ELN renounce kidnapping – its main source of financing – before formal negotiations can begin, and the ELN has rejected this as a pre-condition.)
In August 2012, President Santos announced that he had begun exploratory peace talks with the FARC. 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 per cent regard the guerrillas as criminals; only 13 per cent said the rebels represent “revolutionary ideals”. In June 2014, Santos won re-election on a pro-talks platform. There have been protests both in favour and opposed to a settlement.
Open Doors’ Latin America analyst Dennis Petri reports: “Colombia is a country with multiple realities. Formally, it’s a modern democratic country where the rule of law is established and religious freedom guaranteed. However, large areas of the country are under the control of criminal organisations, drug cartels, revolutionaries and paramilitary groups.
“Contrary to what President Santos has claimed, the country is not generally becoming safer. Many Christians continue to be targeted because of their individual activities as influential pastors, political leaders, journalists, lawyers, human rights advocates, indigenous rights advocates or environmental protection advocates.
“In community life, criminal organisations or guerrillas obstruct Christians in their daily lives, monitoring their activities and impeding anything that goes against their interests. Christians particularly experience hindrances with regard to access to education, health and other social services.
“In national life, criminal groups often take over the traditional roles of the state, which in practice means there is no rule of law and harm inflicted to Christians is left unpunished.
“In church life, organised crime reduces the freedom of Christians to gather, as church services are constantly monitored and sermons censored.”
Among the FARC, a growing Christian presence
In February last year, World Watch Monitor reported on the impact of an American missionary, Russell Stendal, working among the FARC.
Stendal, who in 1983 was abducted and held captive by the FARC for five months, now operates a Christian radio station through his Bogota-based organisation, Colombia for Christ.
He says the FARC leadership now allows its guerrillas to listen to his programmes and even to follow the Christian faith.
Chief FARC negotiator Ivan Marquez told World Watch Monitor people are free to follow the religion of their choice.
Q&A with the comandantes
An extended conversation with the men representing the FARC at the negotiating table with the Colombian government, and with Russ Stendal. Read it here.