Colombian attackers target church justice and peace work

By staff writers
26 Jun 2007

A pre-dawn break-in earlier this month (June 2007) targetted two computers containing sensitive information at the office of Justapaz, the Christian Center for Justice, Peace and Nonviolent Action, on-the-spot reports reveal.

Justapaz is a programme of the Mennonite Church of Colombia and a partner of the North American relief, development and advocacy agency, Mennonite Central Committee.

The thieves by-passed nine other computers, telephones and a safe, taking only the computers with information on people and churches that are active in work for peace and human dignity, and on people from churches that are victims of and witnesses to human rights violations. They also broke into the desk of the coordinator for a programme for protection of persons at risk.

Witnesses in the neighbourhood reported that soon after the break-in, police officers stopped two men carrying a computer but there is no information on whether the men are being held or whether the police retrieved the computer.

This attack occurred 12 days after a similar break-in at the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s office and one in January 2007 at the office of the Permanent Assembly of Civil Society for Peace. The attacks against Justapaz and the other organizations indicate that the perpetrators have precise knowledge of the offices and use sophisticated procedures to gain access to specific information.

This is the first time that a church was subjected to an attack in relation to its work for peace, human rights and dignity and the safety of victims and potential witnesses to human rights violations. There is concern that the stolen information will lead to increased risk to persons and churches whose experiences are documented.

One of the stolen computers belonged to MCC worker Janna Hunter-Bowman. It held testimony about human rights abuses against members of Colombia’s Protestant churches as well as profiles of churches’ peace ministries and names of grassroots church leaders and members who were documenting abuses.

The computer also held Hunter-Bowman's report on documentation 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.

Repeatedly, Hunter-Bowman has heard church leaders recount how many victims or families of victims in Colombia’s armed conflict see the church as the only safe place and were grateful for the chance to recount their stories through the documentation project.

If the project is not a safe space, she said, they may feel that avenue too is closed. “This project tells their stories when they feel there are no other avenues,” she said.

Thefts of information are not uncommon techniques of intimidation in Colombia, Hunter-Bowman said. Jenny Neme, director of Justapaz, worries that those behind the break-in are trying also to seek information on the international communications networks for peace, in this case connecting churches in Colombia with the international community.

The Colombia Mennonite Church and the Christian Center for Justice, Peace and Nonviolent Action has sent a letter to Jim Schrag, who leads Mennonite Church USA, to invite Anabaptist brothers and sisters to share this information with their congregations and others and to pray “not only for Justapaz but for all the individuals, churches and organizations that continue in the task of announcing peace.”

They, along with the MCC Washington office, invite people to contact the appropriate Colombian government officials, including the President, Vice-President and the Ministry of Defense, asking them to take all necessary steps to identify and prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes; to reject such crimes and respect organizations and churches working for human rights, peace and community organization; to guarantee the constitutional rights of these groups as well as those in international treaties of which Colombia is a signatory; and to guarantee the right to religious freedom and absolute respect for church buildings.

They also suggest that North Americans contact the State Department (US) and Foreign Affairs Office (Canada), the US and Canadian Embassies in Colombia and that US residents express their concern to their members of Congress and Canadians to their members of Parliament.

With thanks to Mennonite World Conference and Justpaz

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