Colombia: Planting seeds of hope amid conflict and COVID-19

30 November marked the fourth anniversary of the approval of a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC-EP) by the Colombian Congress. Four years later the country still has a long way to go, as violence continues in several departments and those working in peacebuilding find themselves increasingly targeted by armed actors. Add to this the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the picture is one of serious concern.

CSW spoke to Pablo Moreno, Rector of the Unibautista Baptist Seminary in Cali and Director of the Colombian Council of Evangelical Churches Peace Commission (CEDECOL).

“The COVID-19 pandemic has affected Colombia much like the rest of the world. There have been months of upheaval in the worlds of academia, work and religion. Periods of lockdown have shifted many areas of human life into the virtual realm, altering the physical meetings and face-to-face encounters we had become accustomed to.

In the midst of this, violence has increased in Colombia. Illegal armed groups occupying territories abandoned by the FARC-EP are fighting among themselves for control over drug trafficking routes. At the same time these groups are used to frighten the population to make them leave their homes so that they can build illegal mines, expropriate land, and expand their social dominance in a way that benefits them.

One of the most serious problems facing the country today are the murders of social leaders and human rights defenders (HRDs), including individuals who signed the 2016 peace agreement.

Official figures differ significantly from those offered by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). For example, in July 2020 the Office of the Presidential Advisor for Human Rights, using data from the UN Office for Human Rights, reported that 37 social leaders and HRDs had been killed but that another 47 murders which might fall into this category still needed to be clarified.

On the other hand, the Institute for Development and Peace (INDEPAZ) presents very different figures. According to this NGO, there have been 251 registered murders in Colombia in 2020, with the departments of Cauca and Antioquia most affected. The majority of these murders have nothing to do with drug trafficking, but rather with conflicts over land, mining and livestock farming.

In these two departments there are a significant number of evangelical churches which are not immune to the effects of the worsening insecurity in their territories.

In Bajo Cauca Antioquia, [a subregion of the Department of Antioquia] an evangelical pastor who was targeted by members of a paramilitary group named ‘the Gulf Clan’ had to be relocated with her family to the Bagre municipality in Antioquia, where she received humanitarian aid from the Peace Commission of the Colombian Council of Evangelical Churches (CEDECOL) and the [Mennonite peace and justice NGO] Justapaz, after one of her children was targeted with threats and sexual violence. The pastor is the leader of a Victims’ Associations Project [one of several ran by Justapaz] as well as a leader in their Peace Sanctuary Church (ISP) project. The ISP project helps document cases of victims and is a signatory to the peace agreement in Bajo Cauca which seeks rights and reparations for victims.

A photographic series showing the faces of those disappeared and killed in ‘El Salon del Nunca Mas’, a museum dedicated to reconstructing the memory of the victims of the armed conflict in the municipality of Granada

In light of this reality and having worked in peacebuilding for several years, a number of reflections come to mind.

On one hand, we recognise that the road to peace is long, tedious and dangerous, albeit encouraging.

For several years we have accompanied hundreds of victims of forced internal displacement (IDPs) who are active members of their churches in their new locations to help them begin a new season in their lives. We have also learned that it doesn’t always end there. On several occasions, those we have helped have been displaced again just when they were achieving stability. In the midst of these circumstances, pastors, leaders, women and youth have emerged as leaders of their communities to maintain a hope of a better tomorrow. Their testimony has motivated others to continue working for peace.

On the other hand, it’s important to look at how churches and their leaders face restrictions on their ability to develop their religious, educational and social activities, given that on top of their typical evangelical, pastoral and educational work, they also develop cooperative community actions and emergency care and development projects. In a context dominated by armed actors, unarmed civil society including the churches have lost their freedom to move from one location to another or to work on these types of projects. Those who don’t obey the orders of armed groups have been threatened, pressured, and prevented from holding religious gatherings.

Some IDPs migrate to cities as a result of the pressure from armed groups. Here the churches have also provided humanitarian aid. However, various pastors have been threatened for coming alongside those who have been displaced, as IDPs are often monitored by informers who collaborate to ensure that they [the IDPs] are not recruited by a political or religious group that might prevent them [the armed group] from maintaining control.

Finally, it is important to highlight that despite the restrictions experienced by pastors, leaders and churches in the midst of the conflict, progress has been made in the development of communities so that they can undertake initiatives that help them temporarily rebuild their economic situation for their survival. For several years now we have called these projects “seeds of hope” which encourage churches and communities to maintain their faith and hope in the midst of the uncertainty produced by what they have suffered.”