The Path to Lasting Peace in Colombia Lies in Learning the Lessons of the Past

“Maybe you who came from the cities to see us can tell us, where did mass displacement come from? Where did this Clan Úsuga come from? Where did any of these things come from? Can you tell us? We do not know.”

The Protestant pastor held his Bible tightly to his chest as he stood and said these words. He and his wife had been forcibly displaced along with a large group from their church, forced to flee their rural village to the relative safety of an urban centre, after receiving threats from Clan Úsuga, a neo-paramilitary group also known as the Urabeños, one of the largest and most powerful violent criminal groups in Colombia.

We were at a meeting with about 15 church leaders who had travelled from across the region which was infested with left-wing guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – Army of the People (FARC-EP) and National Liberation Army (ELN), as well the Urabeños and other neo-paramilitary groups. They all had similar stories to share.  Most, like the pastor who asked these questions, were humble people from the countryside who had dedicated themselves to subsistence farming and their ministry. They are far, far away from the centres of power in Colombia both in terms of geographic distance and influence. Yet, as he expressed, they and the people in their communities are the ones who live and cope daily with the consequences of the decisions and agreements brokered in those centres.

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Youhanabad: This Is Our Land, This Is Our Spirit

For 65 years we have tolerated aggression against us so something must have drastically gone wrong that day for that to happen.’

Walking into Youhanabad on the outskirts of Lahore you notice the busyness of life; children playing, street vendors selling fruit and delicious fried snacks and motorbikes and scooters whizzing pass. Two years ago that the scene was transformed – chaos, carnage and confusion ensued on the morning of Sunday 15th March in 2015 when two suicide bombers approached Christ Church and St John’s Catholic Church and blew themselves up killing 15 and injuring around 70 people. After the bombing a mob was instigated, protest turned into violence and violence resulted in two people being lynched.

‘Within a few minutes victims became aggressors’

Suddenly the narrative changed, with many people thinking the attacks were a pre-planned Government conspiracy. Victims of the bomb blast who were Christians were refused treatment and turned away from hospitals. Women hired as domestic workers to do cooking and cleaning were laid off and young men returning to work were told they had no jobs. Retaliatory crimes were committed against Christians with police collusion and police raided Christian localities in Lahore indiscriminately arresting young men; there were complaints of ill treatment and torture.

Youhanabad was built when the Caritas Mission gave funds to Christians to obtain land outside of Lahore. Historically the area had a reputation associated with poverty and crime; as a consequence many Muslims on the outside had developed a very poor view of the Christians living there. After 30 years with the assistance of NGOs, Christians have worked hard to raise their status through better education and employment opportunities changing the attitudes of their Muslim neighbours.

In the aftermath

After the tragedy around 100 men were arrested using media profiling and video footage from mobile phones. A hearing took place to cancel the bails of some of the young men who were arrested; however, the judge maintained the bails and instead questioned the police for not pursuing their investigation and the criminals who were responsible for the double bomb blast.

Today as you approach the two churches there are stark, visible reminders of the tragedy – posters of victims are displayed outside both churches and the walls are covered with bullet holes.  Nonetheless, the community is healing and moving forward.

The Peace Committee, set up in 2013, is comprised of local men and women and divided into sub committees that address issues in the community. One such committee engages with local youths to encourage unity, awareness and cooperation though arranging seminars run by liberal Muslims, emphasising that Pakistan belongs to all Pakistanis. Other programs include sporting activities such as inter-faith cricket matches between Christians and Muslims, and helping bomb victims find new employment.  Another committee is working with the media to change the negative bias surrounding the events in Youhanabad.

 We have taken it all

The Christian community in Pakistan, among other religious minorities, continues to suffer widespread violence and discrimination. There have been numerous attacks on Christians from the burning of Joseph Colony to the tragic killing of Shama Bibi and Shehzad Masih, the couple burnt alive in a brick kiln. The environment is tense. Christians are affected by misused blasphemy laws which are disproportionately used to settle personal scores or in business rivalry. Christian girls are abducted, forced to marry Muslim men and convert against their will. The climate is troubled further by heightened terrorist and extremist threats and security issues, and the lack of resolve by both politicians and police to adequately protect Christians continues to persist.

We have taken everything that was thrown against us. You can pick up the history of this country, you will never find that the Christians have instigated violence or something so brutal at such a large scale.’

This is our land and this is our spirit

In the past year the community in Youhanabad has organised over 15 youth seminars that teach young people life skills, give them an understanding of their rights and instil courage. A recent training programme including Christian activists from Youhanabad has equipped participants with the techniques of social media activism, on digital rights, how to protest peacefully and on engaging with law enforcement agencies.

Despite doubts about the commitment of local Christian politicians, the community is determined to make their own success stories. Local residents told me of their patriotism and their interest in self-development. There is a hunger for education and to educate and counsel people.

‘We want to arrange seminars where you can educate us and we will make the change, change is already here… we are working and on the way change will grow.’

As the city prepares to commemorate those who died preparations are underway for church services and candle lit vigils in the streets of Youhanabad to mourn, to remember and to pray such tragedy never happens again.

By CSW’s Pakistan Desk Officer

The Courage of Cuba’s Ladies in White

Ladies in White

Ladies in White

Every Sunday Cuba’s Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco, in Spanish) have been forcibly and often violently prevented from attending Sunday morning services. Every Sunday since the group was formed in 2003, the women attend (or at least attempt to attend) Sunday Mass dressed in white to symbolise peace and walk through the streets in silent protest afterwards.

The Ladies in White movement was formed in response to the Black Spring in 2003 – a mass crackdown by the Cuban government on dissidents and journalists. Since 2010, all of the Black Spring prisoners have now been released. However, political prisoners remain in Cuba and the Ladies in White, a movement largely comprised of wives and other female relatives of former and current political prisoners remain active.

As the world marks International Women’s Day on 8 March, CSW commends their courage and peaceful protest, which saw them awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2005.

Weekly crackdown on the right to worship

On Sunday 1 February 2015, a member of the group, Mayelin Pena Bullain, was detained, beaten, kicked in the chest by a security agent in Mayabeque province and then imprisoned for the duration of Mass.

Individual cases of this kind number in the thousands. Arbitrary detentions like this are a weekly occurrence and similar incidences of harassment, threat and violence against the women have also been documented. While many women are detained in prison cells or at police stations during Mass, others have been handcuffed and kept in hot cars in the sun for up to six hours. In many cases, following detention, women are dropped off in remote locations forcing them to find their way home.

From 19 to 22 September 2015, 116 members of the Ladies in White were arrested and detained across the country, presumably to stop them from travelling to attend the activities around Pope Francis’s visit to the country. His visit to Cuba and the associated religious activities were not exempt from the government’s attempts to separate members of independent civil society from bodies of faith.

These incidences are indicative of how the government has extensively sought to prevent Cubans from exercising their right to worship. The government is particularly concerned with separating those it views as political dissidents from communities of faith as part of a more general policy of social isolation.  In 2015, the scope of those who have been targeted in Saturday night and Sunday morning police sweeps expanded to include other individuals associated with independent civil society, including human rights and democracy activists. Each weekend the authorities either block targeted individuals in their homes or detain them without charges – sometimes violently.

An unprecedented spike in FoRB violations

The backdrop to the arrests and detentions of the Ladies in White is an unprecedented crackdown on the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Cuba in 2015. During 2015, CSW recorded over 2,300 separate violations, some involving entire churches and others, in the case of arrests, dozens of victims. For the first time in four years, a church leader was sentenced to and served six months in prison for holding unauthorised religious services. It is a crackdown that continued through 2016 and into 2017.

In the weekly Sunday arrests, the majority of those targeted are Roman Catholic and members of the Ladies in White. Yet every week the Ladies in White peacefully defy the state by attending Mass knowing they may be harassed, beaten and arbitrarily detained.

Today we commend the Ladies in White’s persistent protest in the face of adversity and stand in solidarity with them in calling for the freedom of political prisoners in Cuba and for the freedom of all Cubans to assemble and worship without harassment or arrest.

By Claire Denman, CSW’s Public Affairs Officer