Colombia’s churches, supported by their international partners, must develop a single “ethic of peace that comes from Biblical values,” a number of that country’s faith leaders told a packed room at the Havan Libre hotel here May 20 on the eve of the sixth General Assembly of the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI).
After more than 50 years of armed conflict in Colombia ― with more than 5 million “victims,” those displaced, kidnapped or killed ― “we now have the opportunity to explore peace in a new way,” said Ricardo Pinson, a Colombian Mennonite leader. “Now the government is finally acknowledging the problem and there can be a new focus on peace.”
Colombia’s churches “have always tried to be promoters of peace,” said the Rev. Milton Mejia, a Colombian Presbyterian who works for CLAI. The 1993 constitution gave “the church” a greater role in Colombian civil society, but for many of those years the Catholic church was the sole recognized religious authority in Colombia.
These days, Mejia said, many churches have been recognized as working for peace. “The evangelical churches formed their peace commission. We have joined to form an ecumenical network, supported by the World Council of Churches, CLAI, the ACT Alliance and others.
The goal, Mejia said, “is to bring all together in one peace movement, including our counterpart denominations in other countries and our international partners. Peace is the business of all of us.”
There is much to do. “The dialogue process is long and complicated,” Pinson acknowledged. “There is no magic [solution].”
Eduardo Martinez, the Lutheran bishop of Colombia, agreed. “There is a supposed ‘demilitarization’ of the conflict [between the government and FARC rebels],” but the fighting is only lower-level and lower-intensity,” he said. “There is also ‘land restitution’ by the government,” he added, “but it comes with no security guarantees, so the people are continually being threatened, killed and persecuted.”
International partners have responded with accompaniment programs. For almost 10 years the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), through the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, has been sending accompaniers to Colombia to be a “ministry of presence” with endangered Colombian Presbyterians.
More recently, CLAI concluded a pilot program ― the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Colombia (EAPC) ― to be a protective presence with other Colombian citizens under threat.
“The Presbyterians were the first and were ready to go before anyone else,” said Christopher Ferguson of the United Church of Canada, who directs the program for CLAI. “The Presbyterians wanted to work ecumenically from the beginning, but other churches were just not ready.”
With strong backing from the World Christian Student Federation, the EAPC’s pilot sent four accompaniers ― two from Mexico and one each from the Dominican Republic and El Salvador ― to the Caribbean coastal area of Colombia, where threats to peace workers and community activists have been most severe. It is the same region where the PC(USA)’s accompaniment program operates.
In fact, Latin American churches’ young people are among the most active supporters of accompaniment, said Leonardo Vargas Delgado, a Presbyterian from Barranquilla and CLAI’s youth coordinator. “CLAI youth endorsed these efforts,” Delgado said, adding, “There is not a day in my life I haven’t lived with war. We are ready to support these [accompaniment] efforts and to occupy a seat at the table for peace.”
Despite the renewed hope for peace in her country, Sister Maritza, a Dominican nun, said life on the ground is “still a very tough reality.” In the last three months, she said, 10 young people, including a Pentecostal pastor, and three women have been killed in her small region of the country.
Hence the continuing need for accompaniers, said Martinez, insisting that “this ministry of presence is risky, but international presence actually reduces the risk.”
The need for a unified approach to peace in Colombia by its churches and international partners cannot be overstated, the religious leaders said.
“Churches must speak with one voice and accompany those in the social movements that are seeking to change our country,” s said. “The churches commitment must be to an ethical transformation that comes from our Biblical values. Savage violence demands a response of Christian human respect, and it must come from a communion of churches expressed in our unity.”
“Churches share all the joy and all the pain,” said Pinson. “There are still friends and enemies of peace. We must be unyielding friends.”
Mejia read a letter from religious leaders to the Colombian president and congress. “The point is to turn swords into plowshares, to advocate peace accompanied by social justice. It is anchored in human rights, environmental justice, reconciliation and the search for non-military solutions.”
The letter ― which was shared with the Rev. Joel Dopico, president of the Cuban Council of Churches, which has launched its own “dialogue table” in this country ― is, Mejia said, “from a group of Christians who believe in Jesus as the way, the truth and the life.”
Christopher Ferguson provided translation services for this story.