Mennonites document systematic violence against Colombian Protestants

By staff writers
January 30, 2007

As a coordinator for a project documenting how a long-running armed conflict continues to impact Colombia's Protestant churches, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) worker Janna Hunter-Bowman spent hours poring through horrific details of deaths and threats and exploring how Christians are continuing to live out their faith in the midst of pervasive violence - writes Marla Pierson Lester.

MCC is a relief and development organisation of several North American Mennonite denominations, who number among the 'historic peace churches' along with Quakers and Church of the Brethren.

Now, Hunter-Bowman hopes that Christians in the United States, Canada and elsewhere will take to heart the resulting human rights report and that it will move them to action.

The resulting document, 'A Prophetic Call: Colombian Protestant Churches Document Their Suffering and Their Hope,' is built from testimonies gathered by grassroots church members or leaders. The first report, released this Autumn, documents details of 29 assassinations of men, women and children linked to congregations, 84 cases of people forced to flee their homes, 21 civilian combat-related injuries, four arbitrary detentions and other human rights violations.

"Despite fear, Christians claim the gospel mandate of being good news and sow[ing] seeds of peace," Hunter-Bowman explained. "In the midst of the threats, forced displacements, forced recruitments, even where pastors' children are being forcibly recruited, people are continuing to live out their faith. And they're doing so in courageous and innovative ways."

Hunter-Bowman and a co-worker on the project, Pedro Acosta Fernandez, trained five regional coordinators and more than 30 church members to do interviews to document murders and threats. This can be risky work, and church members know they are taking a chance by getting involved in documenting violence, but they tell Hunter-Bowman it's worth it.

One pastor told Hunter-Bowman: "We're acquiring the skills to lift the veil of silence and injustice the whole population and church population in Colombia is living under. We have been silenced all of our lives. Now we're acquiring skills to break the silence and you're telling us people are going to listen."

Colombian Mennonites are asking that Christians in the United States and Canada speak out, she said, and they want to know why Christians in these countries don't say more to their governments.

"We need you to listen to these voices above those that tell you military solutions will work and that governments know best. Listen to your brothers and sisters on the ground rather than governments that promote their interests over the interests of everyday people."

Some 2,500 to 3,000 people a year are killed in the armed conflict in Colombia. More than 3.5 million have been forced to flee their home, including more than 2 million in the last six years. Church members are not immune, and pastors in rural areas began flooding Justapaz, a Colombian Mennonite peace and justice organization in Bogota, with horrific tales.

Then-director Ricardo Esquivia compiled his notes into a report in 2003, which was still being quoted by human rights advocates as late as last summer.

Justapaz, which recently received an international nonviolence award from the Swedish Fellowship of Reconciliation, and Esquivia, who continues as director of the Commission for Restoration, Life and Peace of the Evangelical Council of Colombia (CEDECOL), collaborated in this project to provide updated documentation on the conflict's impact on Protestant churches.

Janna Hunter-Bowman, who works for Justapaz, noted that while official government statements say the security situation in Colombia is dramatically improving, "church people in the regions are living something different. Through this report, they are telling us this much," she said.

Fernandez, who represents CEDECOL, noted that each case strikes him hard even though he grew up in the context of this conflict. "Each story carries its own power. I think a struggle all of us have that are involved in this work is how do you continue on ... not being battered by these stories but not losing sensitivity to them," he said. "We are surprised with each case. And that affirms our humanity."

Hopelessness, Hunter-Bowman said, is a luxury. "Here many people cannot afford to lose hope. It's what sustains and empowers war victims and the destitute when all else has been taken from them. The invitation is to be a church body that embraces and responds to those members who have no choice but to struggle on. ... We have to believe much can grow from a small brown seed."

She adds: "In Colombia, church leaders tell us that US military assistance inflames the conflict, making their ministry more difficult and dangerous."

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