Ministry at the Center of Violence
Russ Stendal, held hostage by terrorists for 142 days in the 1980s, is now taking the Bible to places where angels fear to tread: deep into Colombia's Texas-sized jungle regions, where terrorists, soldiers, and paramilitaries have been fighting since 1964.
Stendal belongs to a group of missions leaders and indigenous pastors who serve in remote areas of Colombia, one of the world's most violent mission fields. Over the past three years, more than 200 churches have been forcibly closed and 35 pastors assassinated in the South American country, reports religious-freedom advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
One of the most recent assassinations occurred in the northern village of Marañonal in September 2009, when three masked gunmen broke into the home of Foursquare Church pastor Rafael Velasquez and killed him in front of his wife and six church members. Other pastors, missions leaders, and churchgoers have received anonymous threats of death, rape, and kidnapping for attending religious services, speaking out for peace, and criticizing terrorists or paramilitaries. Nationwide, the number of killings linked to the conflict has declined significantly each year since 2002. But in 2009, more than 13,000 died in the ongoing violence.
A Catholic-majority country, Colombia has seen persistent growth among Protestant groups, especially since its parliament disestablished the Catholic Church in the 1990s. Numbered at about 6.75 million, Protestants compose 15 percent of the country's population of 45 million.
2010 is a transition year for Colombia. In late February, a constitutional court blocked President Álvaro Uribe's attempt to extend his time in office to an unprecedented third term. During Uribe's tenure, the government continued its successful offensive against two main revolutionary Marxist groups, FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and ELN (National Liberation Army). Guerrillas and paramilitaries, such as the notorious Águilas Negras (Black Eagles), sustain themselves with profits from the $5-billion-per-year illicit cocaine trade.
Many of Colombia's Protestants believe the answer to the insurgency lies in relational outreach. In June 2009 Protestant leaders in Bogota, the capital, issued a 110-page report, "A Prophetic Call," which provides 13 steps for resolving the conflict. Their key proposals include the following:
• include official Protestant church representatives in peace talks once a final ceasefire is in place for all armed groups;
• add reconciliation to the process of demobilizing paramilitaries;
• increase respect for freedom of religion and worship sites; and
• adopt a national process for truth-telling, justice, and reparations.
The report also chronicles the great suffering of Protestant church members. In 2008, the most recent reporting period, Protestants suffered 240 episodes of political violence with 2,285 victims.
Stendal, who makes frequent trips into Colombia's hazardous interior, invited Christianity Today to witness the steady progress he and other church leaders are making. Some of them are making the ultimate sacrifice: martyrdom.
"In some areas of the country, we are dealing with Marxist-Leninist factions that appear every bit as extreme as those in North Korea in that they do not tolerate dissent," Stendal told CT recently. "As things heat up, opportunities for the gospel skyrocket, and we are scrambling to keep up with all the open doors that God has placed before us."