The six-day visit of Pope Francis to Colombia comes when the ink is barely dry on the peace deals between the government and armed rebel factions, the FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and ELN (National Liberation Army). The country is still divided over what should happen to those responsible for the atrocities of the 52-year civil war.
In the mountains of the western department of Cauca, central to the war, there’s still a strong presence of armed groups. To them, committed Christians are a threat as they represent an alternative way to behave in society. But urban members of Colombia’s Baptist Church are working among the indigenous Nasa (also known as Paéz) people, one of Colombia‘s largest indigenous groups, to help them to set up social and community development programmes, through training and support.
Language and cultural barriers
Like Christians in other parts of Colombia, Nasa Christians can see their church services monitored or Christians who speak out against armed groups can be targeted. Once, a training event was interrupted. “Armed militiamen arrived on motorbikes and claimed that there were many informants posing as Christians,” Flavio*, a pastoral volunteer, explains. “When we told them about our activities, they left us in peace.”
Within the indigenous communities themselves, conversion from traditional beliefs is not tolerated and new Christians can be excluded from basic social services or even expelled from their communities. Indigenous Christians who do not practise ancestral traditions, such as engagement in shamanic practices, and who refuse to participate in protests against the government, are harassed and attacked.
It is estimated that between 2015 and 2016, there were 108 incidents of harassment, torture, and violent displacements of Nasa Christians. According to a 2005 Census there are around 186,000 Nasa people, mostly engaged in agriculture.
The partnership between the Baptists and the Nasa Christians started in 2016. “To cross language and cultural barriers, we had to find the simplest and most playful ways of teaching and instructing,” explains Pastor Janeth Cristina Méndez, a volunteer from the Baptist Confraternity. “They like songs, games and drawings so much that we have managed to reach common ground despite the barriers.”
In response, the community has opened up their homes and people have started to develop new skills, although harassment and attacks are ongoing, he says.
The relationship between the two Church communities is necessary in the process of community healing,” says Tatiana Ramírez, Colombia’s Trauma Support Coordinator for the international charity Open Doors. “The engagement allows the urban Church to share in the courage of those persecuted for their faith, and it encourages persecuted communities to be more precise and effective in their responses to persecution. This is a process where everyone wins.”
Pastor Julio Merchán, also a volunteer with the programme, says: “When we go to persecuted communities we are challenged in the faith. We are both teachers and students.”
Working in these areas carries other risks too: traditional shamanic authorities attack Christians with threats and through enchantments and witchcraft. With the help of Open Doors, the exchange programme is impacting 300 indigenous Nasa church leaders, who then coordinate the activities of 70 churches throughout two regions.
*Name changed for security reasons