During the 50 years conflict between Colombia's government and main rebel group, FARC-EP, churches were threatened and hundreds of church leaders assassinated by armed groups. (Photo: World Watch Monitor, 2012)
Hundreds of church leaders were assassinated during the 50-year conflict between Colombia’s government and main rebel group, the FARC-EP. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

Violence in Colombia has killed 200,000 people and caused around 7 million to flee their homes over the past 50 years, making them the world’s largest internally displaced group of people, World Magazine reported last week.

Violence is especially severe in rural areas. At the border with Venezuela, the magazine spoke with Pastor Juan Martinez*, a former member of a cartel who left the group at 16 when he became a Christian.

The pastor says that, along with other spiritual leaders in the area, he is under constant threat of attacks by gangs that demand control over the region and see pastors as an obstacle for establishing their influence.

“I am currently under threat of death for preaching the gospel,” the pastor said, adding that church leaders are accused of siding with one armed group against another. But he said that sometimes members of these groups become interested in Christianity, as the pastors “speak about Christ with anyone who comes to their churches”.

Despite the 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the country’s largest armed group, the FARC, killings have not stopped. One of the most recent assassinations was that of Pastor Elfren Perez, 55, who was murdered outside his home in a village in northwest Colombia on 15 September. The pastor was known for his opposition to the presence of an armed group in the community.

Some other pastors shared their experiences with World Magazine, saying that armed groups demand some portion of their Sunday offerings and order that their churches don’t operate during certain hours.

World also spoke with Emperatriz Arrieta, who had fled to the hills from the city of Medellin years ago and began holding prayer meetings in her home. With the help of missionary groups and churches from Medellin, Arrieta’s community built a church there and a pastor travels up the hills on Sundays to lead the service.

Another pastor who used to be a former associate of a Medellin cartel told World that although he left the group 20 years ago, his past connections could still put him in danger. As someone who became a Christian and left the cartel, he says he is now trying to reach out to militants with the Christian message.

Colombia, although a majority-Christian country, features on the 2018 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian.