Working for justice and peace in Colombia

By Mark Beach
November 26, 2009

For nearly four hours, church activists participating in the World Council of Churches' United Nations Advocacy Week meetings in New York delved deeply into the tragedies and injustices of the current bloody conflict in Colombia.

The facts and figures were compelling and the stories personal. Thousands have been killed. An increasing number of children are being maimed and killed by homemade landmines disguised as toys, and by unexploded ordnance.

Fathers and sons have been kidnapped and murdered by paramilitary groups and guerillas. Land has been lost, people have fled and women and children left abandoned. Colombia has the second highest rate of internally displaced people in the world.

And across the street from the UN Advocacy Week's meetings in the Church Centre, in the broad and influential hallways of the United Nations, the tragedy of Colombia is barely on the world body's radar screen. "Every time we meet with folks there we ask 'what about Colombia?'," Joseph Donnelly, Caritas Internationalis representative to the United Nations, said to the group. "They don't want to hear it, and they say 'not Colombia again'."

At the same time, Bishop Juan Alberto Cardona, the bishop of the Methodist Church in Colombia, told the group that while the churches in Colombia are wrestling with the conflict and seeking peace, there is a role for churches throughout the world that is not being fulfilled. For a group of passionate and dedicated church activists, this was a bitter taste of reality about how far they still have to go to dismantle injustice.

The WCC UN Advocacy Week, held in New York City, US, from 15 to 20 November, brought together church activists from around the world to explore several topics, including the situation of people displaced by climate change, indigenous concerns around the world and continuing violence in Colombia. It is also a time when the activists build contacts and visit officials at various UN missions in the city.

A vision of peace with justice

The passion for bringing peace with justice to Colombia was reflected in the half-dozen presentations from church leaders and activists, in and outside Colombia, to some 80 participants on the second full day of the advocacy meetings.

Jenny Neme, director of the Christian Centre for Justice, Peace and Nonviolent Action (JUSTAPAZ) and a member of the Mennonite Church in Colombia, told the group that more than a decade ago the churches in Colombia realized that "we have not been either the light or the salt that Colombia needs."

Since that time, the churches have established a vision of seeking peace with justice for Colombia by educating communities and churches at the local level about the situation, continuing theological reflection and, in a particularly poignant way, starting to document the suffering within the society, particularly among Christians.

The JUSTAPAZ group has now released a fourth 100-page report, documenting in sometimes graphic detail the suffering of the Colombian Protestant churches.

Donnelly talked about the small steps that have been made in persuading the UN to pay attention to Colombia. The International Criminal Court is looking increasingly toward Colombia, he said, although this may have more to do with the fact that obtaining convictions in their current work in the Great Lakes region of Africa is meeting with only limited success, rather than with anything else.

Still, when it comes to advocacy the church has to be steadfast and persistent, Donnelly said. Today there are nearly 5,000 accredited non-governmental organisations hovering around the UN, he added, each with their access badges to the UN grounds. Holding his UN badge up to the group, he said, "and even this does not guarantee you access."

But, unless the church is consistent and persistent, a few weeks after a visit, the church is forgotten. Donnelly recalled that in the early days of the UN, the church worked hand-in-hand with world leaders to create the Human Rights Charter, which celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2008.

Bishop Cardona said in an interview after his address that the worldwide church has a significant role to play. "First, the church can provide the prophetic voice," he said.

Second, "the church can announce the good news of equity in the gospel," he continued. "In Colombia the church permeates society and is responsible for the prophetic point of view."

"In the case of the World Council of Churches, the WCC can carry out advocacy at the highest level so we can find a negotiated solution to this situation," he said.

In one sense, this brings the churches' commitment to Colombia right back into the halls of the UN.

The Church Centre, where the advocacy meetings are being held and which houses the UN-related offices of the WCC, United Methodists, Presbyterians and others, sits across the street from the UN. Within a few blocks around the UN are other church agencies and offices such as those of Quakers and Mennonites.

Donnelly said that [when] the church can have access to the UN, it can have an impact, but that this takes time; and when you ask for a meeting, he advised, "come with facts."

"What we need is to be more steadfast, to be there constantly," he said.


(c) Mark Beach is director of communications at the World Council of Churches, based in Geneva.

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