In several Latin American countries, religious leaders often take on the roles of community leader and human rights defender. As a result, these leaders often face harassment, intimidation and even violence at the hands of state and non-state actors. Over the next few weeks CSW will be presenting interviews with religious leaders working in the region to highlight their experiences on the frontlines of freedom of religion or belief.
Otto is a Protestant pastor working in Tuluá, Colombia.
“If you say anything you will end up like those two…
It was a Sunday morning, everything was normal, but it was a day in which our lives would change.
After the Sunday service a man came up to me who I had spoken to the Wednesday before, I almost didn’t recognise him because his disposition had changed considerably and you could tell he hadn’t slept or rested in a long time. After I greeted him we began a conversation that would turn mine and my family’s lives upside down. All of this happened in the beautiful country where I was born, Colombia.
To give you an idea, this is a country which thanks to its extensive territory, geography, biodiversity, and a wealth of natural resources, is under what appears to be a “curse” for its fortune. In many regions, all this wealth has led to a scourge of illicit crops and drug trafficking, which carries pain, death and destruction in its jaws.
This same paradise is a place where many suffer in silence as a result of the disastrous effects of all that surrounds this cruel master. Even those who have nothing to do with these activities are made to suffer, among them are ministers – people who sincerely give their lives to the cause of Christ without worrying about the dangers that lie in wait. It was in such a place, in this country, that our story continues.
Ever since I moved to Tuluá I received many warnings telling me to be careful because it is a dangerous city. I was told, in many ways, to avoid certain neighbourhoods and places, however my desire to complete the mission for which God had sent me there led me to ignore all of that. On various occasions I spoke with these “dangerous people” and shared the love and hope of Jesus with them.
In my life and ministry everything has always gone smoothly, although I would constantly hear about murders, beheadings, and the kind of news that keeps happening in this part of the country. Despite this, I always thought that violence only affected those who were directly involved in drug trafficking, that was how it was reported in the local media.
However, the day arrived when I heard the words: “If you say anything you will end up like those two.” – What happened?
That Sunday, speaking to the man who approached me, I realised that he was a hired hitman, and that the day before he had killed two people and now wanted to repent. After a few minutes, however, everything changed, his facial expression was transformed and he became aggressive, telling me he regretted confessing to the killings.
He then told me he was armed and, taking my hand by force, he made me touch the weapon he had used to murder those people. My wife, son and daughter and some women from the congregation were nearby, but they couldn’t hear our conversation. He continued to intimidate me, showing me the gun and telling me that I was already “involved in this situation.”
After some time he told me that I had to accompany him to another location. I replied that if he needed money I could give it to him, but he told me that he had enough and didn’t need it. Again he told me to come with him to a place he called ‘the room,’ saying “I don’t want to do anything here.”
Trying to control the situation I repeated to him over and over: “Calm down, calm down, everything is going to be ok,” but the atmosphere grew more and more tense.
Mustering up the courage and having faith that all was going to be ok, I stood up and little by little I moved towards the church entrance. Once I was there I shouted to my wife and children to get in the car immediately (until then they didn’t realise anything was happening.) Soon there was a good amount of people in the street, I hurried to my car and left with my family.
We arrived home frightened. We quickly packed some clothes and left, scared that the man was looking for us to kill me. That same day we left the city and did not return.
My children are seven and three years old, they still ask me why we left the city and why they couldn’t go back to their schools; with a broken heart I tell them “God wanted it like that.” As I write these words we remain in exile, living in a strange new place, but grateful to God, who continues to show His faithfulness in our lives.
Some of my brothers at the church told me that the hitman came to look for us twice more. Once on the following Wednesday during a prayer meeting in the church, and again the following Sunday. On both occasions he entered the church, looked inside and then went outside to wait on the corner until the meeting had finished and everyone had left.”