With promise of peace unfulfilled, Colombians call for solidarity

Justapaz defies risks as it documents human-rights abuses; churches bear the wounds of armed conflict

Candles mark the hope many Colombians had when a peace accord was signed in 2016. — Presidencia El Salvador/Creative Commons Candles mark the hope many Colombians had when a peace accord was signed in 2016. — Presidencia El Salvador/Creative Commons

Despite a landmark 2016 peace deal that held the promise of ending more than 50 years of violence in Colombia, Mennonites in South America’s second most populated country report the conflict that affected more than 8 million people through killings, disappearances, threats and displacement continues to claim more victims.

Senior leaders of the Colombian Mennonite Church and Justapaz — the peace, justice and nonviolent action arm of the church — say there were 291 killings of civil and community leaders from Jan. 1 to Nov. 14, 2020. Five churches were entirely displaced, three church leaders were killed, and 10 children of church families were forcibly recruited into illegal armed groups. In one case, children were taken from a sanctuary.

These were not Mennonite churches, but churches in areas where Justapaz works, at times in collaboration with the Evangelical Confederation of Colombia.

For security reasons, names of church leaders are not being used. Justapaz in particular is the target of threats.

The organization accompanies churches and others in numerous parts of the country, including regions most affected by the armed conflict. For 28 years, it has documented human-rights violations, accompanied people in danger and promoted peacebuilding initiatives.

Late last October, the Colombian Mennonite Church sent a statement to Mennonite Church Canada, among others, about the violence in Colombia. In reporting the killings, it said, “Death has been sown, and with it, terror.”

The statement calls on the Colombian government to comply with the terms of the 2016 peace accord. It also lists seven calls to action for churches, including denunciation of violence, teaching nonviolence, accompanying victims, inviting those who commit violence to accept the gospel, and practicing solidarity by working for the common good.

The Colombian Mennonite Church includes 25 congregations across the country, including areas marked by poverty, unemployment and social problems. A Mennonite Brethren conference in Colombia includes about 45 congregations. MB churches in certain regions of the country have suffered particularly acutely from the violence. One church is said to have been entirely displaced, and children there were raped.

The 2016 peace accord required the demilitarization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, the main armed insurgent group in Colombia. In exchange, the government promised massive investment in disadvantaged rural areas, government incentives for farmers to grow crops other than coca (a crop used in the production of cocaine and a major source of financing for FARC), redistribution of land, a truth commission and legal immunity for the majority of players in the conflict.

The accord narrowly failed to gain approval in a national vote, largely because of opposition to immunity for FARC fighters. The government then took measures to enact the accord without a plebiscite.

Most FARC fighters turned in their arms, but the government failed to establish a strong presence in poorer rural areas formerly controlled by FARC. Without sufficient security, health services and economic development, other illegal armed groups filled the void, since the accord with FARC did not directly include numerous other armed groups.

A political party that opposed the accord came to power in 2018, further muting the once-high hopes many Colombians had for the ambitious peace process.

With a presence in half of the 32 states that make up Colombia, Justapaz has a thorough process for documenting and verifying human-rights abuses. It publishes occasional reports, called Llamados Proféticos (Prophetic Calls). The most recent one is a 61-page document that includes theological reflections, detailed analysis of the pandemic’s impacts on the conflict and, the heart of the report, a detailed summary of numerous human-rights violations.

Many human-rights violations note the association of the victim to a church. In some cases, entire churches are listed as the victims.

One case involves a 40-year-old man who had left a paramilitary group in 2016 and came to faith. In March 2018, members of an armed group came to his house in a small settlement near the border with Panama. They said he should come with them.

When pastors of his church heard of this, they joined community members to look for him. They found his body in a paddock. Some armed actors in the area accused him of collaborating with guerrilla forces. After his death, his pregnant wife’s health deteriorated.

Another case tells of a teenage boy who cared for five siblings while his mother worked. Due to economic pressures, he went with a friend to do manual labor in a mining area. He ended up in an armed group, not by his choice.

One day as he went to fetch water he heard a military helicopter and ran out into the open, hoping to be rescued. His captors came running, but the youth fled. Military personnel helped him, and he entered a government program of reintegration into society.

In a third case, amid increasing clashes between armed groups, a pastor reported many families had been forced out of town. Armed groups moved into vacated homes, pretending to be families.

Youth of the five area churches were at high risk of being forcibly recruited for combat or to transport illicit substances and arms. One youth had to move after receiving a death threat. The pastor’s two teenaged daughters were also moved after receiving direct threats. It is assumed there is an informant within the church community.

The head of Justapaz shared one account after another of human-rights violations, including current accounts of threats to a well-known Mennonite Brethren pastor. He spoke with specificity, concern and urgency. At one point, he mentioned that on that very day he was accompanying a commission receiving five people leaving an armed group.

He emphasized that Justapaz also supports more than 50 peacebuilding initiatives, largely in churches. Faith communities are actively addressing the conflict.

On Dec. 11-12, Justapaz organized a national gathering of victims of armed conflict. The National Truth Commission — created under the 2016 peace accord — was present, and about 200 church leaders shared how they have been affected and efforts they are taking to address the conflict.

For its part, Colombian Mennonite Church leaders have been in direct communication with government officials regarding the conflict. “Our role as church is to push government to take concrete actions,” one person said.

Church leaders expressed a wish that North Americans make their governments aware, partly because international attention can help provide protection for church leaders in Colombia.

“When the Mennonite family around the world knows what is happening in Colombia, that helps us to feel that we are not alone,” one leader said. Another encouraged Mennonites in other nations to also put into practice the seven points related to nonviolence in the recent Colombian church statement, as this helps to strengthen the international Anabaptist church.

The Justapaz spokesperson also asked for prayer as they accompany people in their pain and suffering.

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