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, ...1