Ecumenical leaders from the National Council of Churches of Christ (NCC) and Church World Service (CWS) visited Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador from Aug. 21-30 so U.S. churches could come to know the reality of the displaced, victims of violence and Colombian refugees in the region.
The delegation also talked with leaders from churches and civil society and Congressional and government representatives to explore ways of working together to achieve peace in Colombia and lessen tension in the Andean region.
The visit was organized by the NCC, CWS, the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI), churches in the three countries, the Ecumenical Network on Latin America for Migration, Refugees, and Displaced People as well as the Church and Society Observatory of the Reformed University in Colombia.
The delegation included NCC General Secretary Michael Kinnamon and his fiancée Mardine Davis; Bishop Johncy Itty, president of the CWS board of directors; the Rev. José Luis Casal, secretary of the NCC’s executive committee and General Missioner for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s Tres Rios Presbytery; and David Leslie, president of the NCC/CWS Ecumenical Committee on Immigration of the NCCC(USA) and CWS and executive director of Ecumenical Ministries in Oregon.
They were accompanied by leaders of churches and universities interested in the Andean region: The Rev. Matt Samson, professor of anthropology at PC(USA)-related Davidson University in North Carolina; the Rev. Dale Patterson, pastor of Hackberry Creek Presbyterian in Irving, Texas; Nancy Cecilia Casal, national moderator of Presbyterian Hispanic/Latina Women in the U.S.; and Ian Leslie, a student of political science and international relations at the University of Oregon.
In Bogotá, the delegation participated in and various members preached in worship services with the Methodist, Episcopal, and Presbyterian Churches in the city. They also had a conference with leaders of the national board of CLAI-Colombia and the Ecumenical Network of Colombia where the leaders of the churches shared their perspectives about the violence in Colombia.
The NCC and CWS representatives also shared their interest in strengthening relations with Latin America and their support for overcoming the humanitarian crisis in Colombia.
National Council of The delegation, along with leaders of the churches in Colombia, was received by Rodrigo Rivera, the Colombian Minister of Defense. The Minister shared the government’s perspective in relation to the armed conflict that continues in Colombia and confirmed that it is open to dialogue for peace that should be preceded by the cessation of armed actions and terrorist activities and the laying down of all arms by the guerrilla groups.
The U.S. leaders shared their worries about the amount and destination of U.S. military assistance to Colombia and their desire that a majority of the assistance be humanitarian aid for those affected by the conflict.
The same message was presented to the officers of the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá. There the delegation was received by Chargé de Affairs S. Ken Yamashita, political counselor Mark A. Wells, and Human Rights Advisor Amanda Porter.
Yamashita spoke about the search for peace in Colombia, signaling that the principle objective should be repairing the social fabric that has been significantly weakened by the long protracted conflict.
Wells added that peace talks should happen in many different sectors, including the social, economic, religious, and political sectors.
Kinnamon responded that the churches in the United States joined in one voice for the search for peace for Colombia and the region in which all these sectors are present.
The delegation also met with representatives of the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination Group for Human Rights; Mingas, an indigenous human rights organization; and the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace.
The delegation heard the testimonies of displaced persons from the region of Cacarica. They also visited the Roman Catholic Bishop’s Conference. The group also met with leaders of Colombians for Peace and Senator Piedad Córdoba of the Liberal Party.
The Senator gave a report on the recently discovered mass graves in the region of La Macarena and also requested assistance from the delegation in visiting Colombian paramilitary members incarcerated in the United States who fear for the lives of their families in Colombia.
On the way to Venezuela the delegation met with representatives of ecumenical organizations and leaders of churches in Medellín, who informed them about the situation in that populous city. They told of their possible work together for the defense of the displaced peoples inside the city and with refugees in the border areas with Venezuela and Ecuador, as well as the support the churches and civil society in moving forward the process for peace in Colombia.
In Caracas the delegation met with leaders of churches in Venezuela to strengthen ecumenical relations and to understand the reality of the country.
The delegation met with Vice-Chancellor and Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Temir Porras Ponceleón, who shared information about the main issues on the Venezuelan government´s agenda in relation to its neighboring countries and with regard to the relations between Venezuela and the United States.
At one point in the conversation, the vice-minister stressed that the ideals of the government of Venezuela are in line with the principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and showed an openness to the participation of Protestant and Evangelical churches in the construction of a new society he said the government is creating in Venezuela.
The delegation was also received by Vice-Minister for Women’s Development and President of the Women’s Bank Nora Castañeda, who offered a comprehensive and detailed perspective on the opportunities that the government offers women for their intellectual, economic, and social development.
At one point in the conversation the vice-minister affirmed that the principles used in her programs for working with women are the same that are present in the Word of God.
At the Fabricio Ojeda Endogenous Center, the delegation was given a detailed look at the different plans for community development that the Center offers. The leaders of the Center stressed that self-sustainability and self-development are central concepts to the work of the development centers like theirs that exist throughout the country.
The National Assembly of People's Power was the setting for a meeting with ECUVIVE, a Venezuelan ecumenical organization that cares for the needs of refugees, principally Colombians. The delegation received detailed information about the conditions of refugees and displaced persons in Venezuela.
The director of International Relations of the National Assembly of People's Power guided the group on a tour of the Capitolio. the birthplace of national hero Simón Bolívar, and other places of interest in historical Caracas.
A meeting with the group Colombians for Peace in Venezuela closed the circle of meetings and visits in this country.
In Quito, the delegation participated in a workshop analyzing the situation of Colombian refugees in Ecuador, organized by CLAI which included ecumenical leaders in Quito, representatives of non-governmental organizations that work in human rights and with migrants, as well as representatives of the government who work in the area of refugees and migrants.
At that meeting, Kinnamon outlined a six-point plan to open cooperative ministry between the NCC and CLAI. He also stressed the desire to inform and orient the churches of the United States about the reality of the problems of internal displacement and Colombian refugees in the area and the need to advocate to the U.S. government for an increase in humanitarian aid instead of the disproportionately high military aid to the region.
CLAI General Secretary the Rev. Nilton Giese suggested a meeting at the border in order to make bilateral decisions regarding new forms of cooperation to resolve the grave problems that originate from the displaced persons and refugees in the area.
Giese explained that the long-term solution to the conflicts in this region would not be solved by military presence. "What the region needs is economic investment, the presence of governmental services that favor the development of communities and the creation of better means of access for trade to make possible a re-evaluation of traditional agricultural production so that there may be an alternative to growing coca (from which cocaine is derived)."
The meetings concluded with a visit by the delegation and Ecuadorean church and CLAI leaders to Chancellor and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ecuador Ricardo Patiño at the Foreign Ministry.
In that conversation the chancellor spoke about relations between Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia as well as relations with Cuba and, of course, with the United States.
The chancellor had positive words to say about the new Colombian government in the search for a regional peace and he asked the delegation to join the efforts to achieve a genuine and lasting peace in Colombia.
He questioned the need for a North American military presence through the seven U.S. bases that are being used in Colombia.
Kinnamon responded that "the National Council of Churches of Christ does not support the construction of military bases in Colombia. On the contrary we will take our voices to the different levels of the administration in which we have a presence asking that the majority of the economic aid from our country to Latin America may go to projects of humanitarian aid, the environment, and social welfare."
Joint statement in the works
A joint statement is being prepared by the participating groups that calls for a "shared global security" in which the investment in arms gives way to an investment in resources for development. It calls for US foreign aid to focus on humanitarian aid, with an emphasis in the problems that exist because of the violation of human rights in Latin America, especially in Colombia, Mexico and Honduras.
It calls for a normalization of the relations with Cuba, the elimination of the economic embargo and a review of the case of five Cubans imprisoned in U.S. jails. It also emphasizes the need for continued humanitarian aid for the reconstruction of Haiti.
The document establishes the need for immigration reform in the U.S. and also in Latin American countries such as Mexico,Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic, holding up the ideal of the "universal citizenship."
It invites a change in focus in the war on drugs where the problem is analyzed in an integral, comprehensive way, including the issue of consumption.
The document also warns of world climate change, calling for respect and care of creation, underlining the responsibility of churches within the process.
The document ends with an invitation to continue these interchanges in the future for the benefit of both regions and for the churches in Latin America and in the U.S.
The Rev. Jose Luis Casal is secretary of the executive committee of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and general missioner for the Presbytery of Tres Rios of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The Rev. Milton Mejia is director of the Observatory of Church and Society, Reformed University of Colombia, Barranquilla.