Shared experiences in the context of extreme violence: what is the Church’s role?

Over the past decades, both Peru and Colombia have experienced internal conflicts which involved extreme levels of violence in many regions and high loss of life. While the conflicts were political (pitting far left groups against the government and/or far right paramilitary groups) they directly impacted ordinary civilians and civil society, including churches.

In many cases, Christians, especially church leaders, were targeted for different reasons by the various armed actors. This directly affected freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in those areas.

In both countries, the larger Church (composed of many different denominations) found itself looking for ways to respond to the conflict and especially how to support the churches, Christians and others living in conflict zones.

Peace and Hope, a Protestant Christian non-governmental organisation in Peru, was created specifically for this reason following the massacre, by the Peruvian military, of six young men attending an evening prayer service in a Presbyterian church in 1984. In Colombia, the Mennonite non-governmental organization, Justapaz, works closely with partners in the Colombian Council of Churches Peace Commission on these issues, including the documentation of the experiences of churches in conflict zones and support for victims and those under threat.

When I began leading Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s (CSW) work on Latin America 17 years ago I knew very little about the armed conflicts in Peru and Colombia, and even less about their impact on churches and Christians. Unfortunately my ignorance was not uncommon – even today I am frequently asked why CSW, which is an NGO dedicated to the defense of freedom of religion or belief, works on these countries, known as ‘Christian countries.’

As I visited both countries, working with Peace and Hope in Peru and with the Council of Evangelical Churches in Colombia, I had many opportunities to personally meet and hear the testimonies of church leaders living in conflict zones. I began to understand that living in this context was not easy, and to live as a Christian was a serious challenge with grave consequences – including persecution.

What is the right response when an armed group comes to a pastor to demand that he hand over a portion of the offering, dedicated to Christ? What does a pastor do when an armed group comes to tell her that she should not preach on certain Christian themes that they do not like? What does a missionary do when an armed group comes to inform him that he’s no longer allowed to visit the isolated communities in the countryside and that the Christians who live there are no longer allowed to meet? What does a young Christian, in love with Christ’s words about peacemakers, do when an armed group comes to recruit him (by force if he won’t join voluntarily)?

I understood that there are no easy answers to these questions. I learned that in many of these cases, Christians who disobeyed the orders of the armed groups to follow the orders of the Lord paid with their lives.

This led me to another question.

In a context of extreme violence, what is the role of the Church in the widest sense of the word – the Church at the national level or even the international level?

I saw the answer in the work of Justapaz and Peace and Hope, seeking out the affected people and communities in order to support them socially, practically, legally and spiritually.

The two organisations now have decades of experience and they continue to grow and learn – and their experiences can be very useful for other Christians working as individuals, in churches or formal groups like NGOs, who are also looking for an effective way to respond to the needs of their neighbor in a context of extreme violence.

This kind of extreme violence is now seen in other parts of Latin America including in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and parts of Mexico. Local churches have been forced to confront many of the same core issues as Peru and Colombia.

As a result, in 2016 and 2017, Peace and Hope and Justapaz collaborated to write a book: Las Buenas Nuevas en Contextos de Violencia (translation: Good News in the Context of Violence).

Available online now, Las Buenas Nuevas en Contextos de Violencia shares the experiences and lessons learned by Peace and Hope and Justapaz as Christian organisations working within a context of violent conflict. It is my hope that this can help other churches and Christian groups which find themselves in similar situations in Latin America – and around the world.

By CSW’s Latin America Advocacy Officer