This is an election month in Colombia and megachurch pastor Cesar Castellanos is mixing religion and politics. Castellanos leads the huge International Charismatic Mission in Bogota, an independent, Pentecostal congregation he founded in 1983 with eight people that has grown to more than 100,000 today. But Castellanos is not content merely to be pastor at Bogota's largest evangelical church. On March 8, he became an elected member of the Colombia House of Representatives.
Public service carries considerable risk for Castellanos. Media will closely scrutinize his integrity. In a country where drug trafficking is a major industry, corruption scandals have tainted the reputations of numerous government officials, including that of President Ernesto Samper, who will relinquish the office following presidential elections on May 31. Forecasters expect 60 percent of the nation's voters to stay away from the polls that day because Colombians have come to believe that politics is powerless to solve the country's enormous problems.
Powerless or not, politics in Colombia is incredibly bloody. As happens every election year, numerous candidates campaigning for office have been assassinated. Just as the March congressional race wound down, a pitched battle ignited between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas (FARC) and the Colombian army for control of the southern Caqueta Province. The first three days of combat claimed the lives of 80 soldiers and a like number of guerrillas. The rebels seem to have two objectives: sabotage the electoral process and protect Caqueta's cocaine industry, which helps finance their army.
Why would Cesar Castellanos, one of Colombia's pre-eminent religious leaders, want to get mixed up in a business so violent as Colombian politics? Precisely because of the violence. In May 1997, unidentified assailants tried to kill Castellanos and his wife, Claudia Rodriguez Castellanos, as they drove home from Sunday worship services. Castellanos suffered four bullet wounds in the chest, throat, and left arm. He spent two weeks unconscious in intensive care clinging to life. Three bullets struck Claudia Castellanos in the arm and thigh. Miraculously, their four daughters and two of their nephews traveling in the car with them escaped injury. The would-be killers escaped without a trace.
Investigators initially thought the terrorists' primary target had been Claudia Castellanos, who served in the Colombian Senate from 1992 to 1994 and had announced her intention to run again. They later concluded that the attack had no political overtones. It did, however, motivate Cesar Castellanos to seek election himself.
"The assassination attempt led me to do some reflection, and I decided to enter government," Castellanos told CHRISTIANITY TODAY in Bogota. "Despite the violence in Colombia, we know God has raised up the Christian faith to stop these invisible, almost demonic forces. For that reason we are working on all fronts—the spiritual, social, and political—to influence the coming of peace to our nation."
FACELESS VIOLENCE: Like Cesar Castellanos, every Christian minister in Colombia faces risk. Since 1995, at least 21 evangelical pastors and more than 100 congregational leaders have been murdered. The homicide rate in this nation of 36 million is 15 times greater than that of the United States. Murder is so common it seldom makes the news. Crime studies reveal that more than half of the homicides go unreported, and only 3 percent are ever prosecuted. Eighty percent of the population, in fact, have no proper police protection or access to courts of law.
A comparison between Colombia and neighboring Peru, which suffered through the Shining Path terrorist war a decade ago, reveals a dramatic picture. The Shining Path uprising, one of the bloodiest in South America in this century, claimed an estimated 30,000 lives during a 15-year period. However, nearly that many people—28,000—died violently in Colombia last year alone.
Political violence has increased markedly during the Samper administration, which began in August 1994. Insurgents have exploited the president's low approval rating, the product of allegations that Samper is in the pay of the drug cartels, to escalate their war against the state. In turn, wealthy ranchers and industrialists have countered the leftist challenge by financing paramilitary units, which are private militias to protect their land and commercial interests.
REFUGEES FLEE: The undeclared civil war has engulfed large areas of the country, from Caqueta and Putumayo in the south, to Uraba and Medio Magdalena in the north. The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Amnesty International report that 1 million refugees have fled their homes.
Refugees include two large, U.S.-based evangelical missions. A rash of abductions and the tragic deaths of two missionaries in 1995 (CT, July 17, 1995, p. 60) forced New Tribes Mission (NTM) to withdraw all personnel and mission school students from its base in Villavicencio. FARC guerrillas in Colombia are believed to have abducted three NTM missionaries more than five years ago (CT, March 8, 1993, p. 68) who have not been found. In 1996, because of increased kidnapping and bomb threats (CT, July 15, 1996, p. 65), directors of Wycliffe Bible Translators made the agonizing decision to close its linguistic center in Loma Linda, where missionaries had labored since 1964 to provide the New Testament in tribal languages.
The vast majority of the exiles are peasant farmers or unskilled workers caught between the warring factions. To battle clandestine armies such as the FARC, the government's military strategists employ the practice of territorial "cleansing." Field commanders order civilian populations to abandon areas where guerrillas are known to operate, destroying the homes and crops of those who fail to comply. The tactic aims to deprive the rebels of foodstuffs, hiding places, and recruits.
However, the heavy-handed abuse has turned many Colombians against the armed forces. Some become guerrilla collaborators out of self-defense. But joining a rebel movement is an unsatisfactory option. FARC cadres use peasants as political shock troops, obligating them to march in public demonstrations, stage squatter invasions of private lands, and otherwise place themselves in harm's way. Defectors from rebel ranks typically end up dead.
As the ruthless conflict escalates, so do the activities of paramilitary "death squads," which have taken up the task of controlling civilian populations through intimidation. Their signature tactic is making guerrilla sympathizers vanish, later dumping the victim's mutilated body to be discovered by family or neighbors. The message is clear: to avoid a similar fate, clear out now. Samper has repeatedly condemned paramilitary squads and ordered army commanders to dismantle them. According to Amnesty International, however, their numbers have increased markedly during his administration.
Although they tend to grab headlines, direct clashes involving the army, paramilitaries, and guerrillas account for only 5 percent of violent deaths each year in Colombia, according to research by the independent Ser Institute. The warring factions seldom attack one another directly, preferring instead to inflict harm on civilian surrogates.
The drug war also grabs headlines, especially in the international press. Yet cartel mischief accounts for only 10 percent of homicides in Colombia—which is more than 90 percent Catholic—according to researchers. About 85 percent of murders fall under the category of crimes committed by unknown assassins for indiscernible reasons.
PASTORS MURDERED: Many victims of faceless violence die of mere suspicion.
That is the case in Uraba, a region of vast banana plantations and peasant farms where guerrilla bands and paramilitary groups vie for power. It is also an area where Protestant churches are experiencing rapid growth. But the social upheaval puts innocent Christians at mortal risk.
In recent years, the Association of Evangelical Churches of the Caribbean (AIEC), a denomination affiliated with the Latin America Mission, has lost pastors and lay leaders in Uraba. One evening in March 1995, a paramilitary band gunned down Hugo Rangell at his dinner table. They suspected Rangell, a member of the Nuevo Damasco AIEC church, of being a guerrilla sympathizer because they tracked a stolen cow to his pasture field. On another night, a death squad entered the home of Moises Alean, pastor of the AIEC congregation in Volcancito, and murdered Alean, his wife, and four children. The family apparently died because they, too, had been suspected of collaborating with guerrillas. Following the massacre, Alean's entire congregation fled Volcancito, concluding that their pastor's assassins soon would be coming after the rest of them.
SUCCESS CAN BE FATAL: In other cases, a church leader's success, not suspicions of collaboration, places him at grave risk. Manuel Amador resigned as pastor of the Foursquare Gospel Church in Chigorodo to devote himself to itinerant evangelism. An energetic preacher, Amador attracted large audiences. He also attracted the attention of an armed faction that decided Amador commanded so large a following that it threatened their control. In May 1996, guerrillas or paramilitaries—it is still unclear—assassinated him.
One Sunday afternoon in June 1995, Jess Argelio prepared for the evening service at the Foursquare Church in Apartado when two men appeared at his front door. Argelio answered the knock, and the duo shot him in the head, killing him instantly. The assailants had heard about Argelio's bold preaching and concluded he was an enemy of the people who must be eliminated.
The same fate nearly overcame Carlos Payares, a friend and fellow pastor of Argelio's, who served eight years in Uraba as district superintendent of the Inter-American Church, a denomination pioneered by the missions agency OMS International. Parishioners urged Payares to flee Apartado because they learned he was the target of an assassination plot. Meanwhile, they contacted the group planning his murder and convinced them Payares should be allowed to live.
"The problem is the armed groups think the church is an opponent that could upset their plans," Payares says. "They attack the church because they see it as a dangerous enemy."
When church members do not participate in the violence, they are persecuted because they appear to be on the opposing side, Payares says. "But the church is not on the side of either the rich or the insurgents," he says. "It's only practicing the principles of the Lord."
"The spirit that operates in the 'paras' and the guerrillas is the same," Bible college student Alexander Puerta told CT, "We never ask favors of either of them. It's like asking a favor of the Devil." Puerta is nearly blind as a result of an attack by guerrillas at a banana plantation in 1995. The massacre left 25 dead. Only Puerta, an elderly woman, and a teenage girl survived.
AWAKENING TO NEEDS: Faceless violence has created the 1 million internal exiles who have fled their homes and farms for safer havens. These families face a dismal future. More than half of displaced households are headed by single mothers whose husbands have been murdered or disappeared. Poor to begin with, they abandon all property and possessions. Often they must leave behind even their personal identities so that enemies cannot trace their whereabouts. This makes the task of settling in new communities and securing new jobs especially difficult.
In mid-1996, Jana Gregory, an attorney from Portland, Oregon, who works in Colombia with the Mennonite Central Committee, heard a prayer request at church for 250 refugees living in vacant Bogota office buildings and went to visit them.
"Half were kids," she recalls. "They were sleeping on bare floors, most of them were sick. Some of the adults had gone back home and were killed, so the rest were afraid to return. We decided to see what kind of services we could offer."
Gregory and other volunteers from the Teu Saquillo Mennonite Church organized twice-weekly visits to play with the children and tutor them. Hairdressers gave free haircuts, dentists worked on teeth. The whole population received free treatments for intestinal parasites. After seven months in the office buildings, the government resettled the refugees in another part of the country. Gregory's Presbyterian congregation in Portland and the Mennonite Central Committee of Colombia supplied the refugees with seed money for livestock and farm implements.
This is but one example of the evangelical community in Colombia awakening to needs of violence victims. Guillermo Tirana, pastor of the Trinity Baptist Church in Bogota and president of the Evangelical Confederation of Colombia (CEDECOL), told CT that the crisis has prompted unprecedented, interdenominational cooperation.
"Heavy blows make us sensitive," he says. "Everywhere that people are caught in the violence, they are asking for help. That has motivated us to take action."
Since assuming leadership of CEDECOL in 1995, Tirana has involved the organization in relief efforts on behalf of displaced persons. Bogota churches have donated food, clothing, and money as never before. "The evangelical community in its totality is agreed that we must do this for displaced persons," Tirana says.
CEDECOL also formed the Commission on Human Rights and Peace in 1995 to aid persons suffering from violence, naming Bogota attorney Ricardo Esquivia as director.
"Thirty pastors from every part of the country are serving on the commission," Esquivia says. "People are beginning to give attention to the suffering church."
The commission sponsors training events such as the workshop on community peacemaking and conflict resolution conducted in February in Medell'n. Instructors from a wide denominational spectrum led discussions on a variety of topics. Harold Segura, rector of the Baptist Seminary in Cali, presented a biblical theology of peace. Pablo Moreno, also from the Cali faculty, sketched the historical experience of the church in violent contexts.
"The object [of the training] is for commission members to reproduce themselves in their respective regions," Esquivia says. "All of these churches have suffered blows. What we are trying to do is to help people who are suffering see God moving through the churches."
TRAUMA RECOVERY: The CEDECOL commission noticed the deep psychological scars that violence inflicts upon displaced persons and is busy equipping the volunteers in its network to conduct what is called community-based, trauma recovery therapy. With a $30,000 grant from unicef, the commission has launched a pilot program in Uraba that it hopes to replicate in other areas of the country.
"These people have left everything—farms, animals, all their personal property, and maybe some dead family members—behind," says Gregory, who helped design the program. "We work with groups of children and women to get them to talk about the pain they've suffered, and to do that in the context of the Christian faith. When a mother sees there's value in talking through fears with her kids and offering them reassurance, then she can spread that through the family and, hopefully, beyond."
Tensions in Colombia have reached such a pitch that even the CEDECOL project, altruistic as it is, faces risk. unicef officials coach evangelical volunteers to alert local army commanders about their activities, lest they be mistaken for leftist organizers. The term displaced person does not appear in the commission's public announcements, because it arouses political passions. Volunteers must carefully monitor who attends their meetings and not allow photographs, because death squad operatives infiltrate such groups to identify future victims. And every Christian who works with the Commission for Peace faces the sobering reality that, every year, scores of relief workers and human-rights defenders are slain in Colombia.
Esquivia is aware of the risk and accepts it as part of the task. "There are cases in which we might be helping somebody who's from the guerrillas or the paramilitaries, but we don't do background checks on anybody before we help them," he says. "It's enough that they are suffering. Everyone is a human being, and God asks us to work with everyone."
Tirana agrees. "Most things are risky, especially if we're talking about doing things that are really worthwhile," he says.
FRONTLINE OUTREACH: Besides risk, evangelicals have faced criticism for their peacemaking effort. The most oft-repeated is that their initiative is too little, too late. The Protestant church, estimated at between 3.5 million and 7 million, is now a sizable segment of Colombia's 37 million people.
Jack Voelkel, chair of the Missions Department of Biblical Seminary of Colombia in Medell'n, does not share that assessment. "It's always difficult for evangelicals to develop efficient organizations, even in the States, where we have so many resources," he says. "This is difficult in any situation, but particularly in Colombia where the institutions are young and pastors struggle to survive."
Rising violence has prompted Colombian Protestants to respond to another challenge: assuming responsibility for evangelizing the country's native Amerindian peoples, many of whom live in areas under guerrilla control. Three years ago, a consortium of evangelical churches formed a national mission society known as Misincol. Wycliffe missionary Fernando Larzabal has been working with the agency to develop a corps of Colombian Bible translators. Wycliffe Bible Translators hopes to equip them with the linguistic skills necessary to carry on the daunting task of translating the New Testament into the 80 native dialects found within the country.
According to Larzabal, that objective acquired new urgency in 1996, when Wycliffe pulled its missionaries out of their base in Loma Linda. "The fact that we were forced out of Loma Linda placed us in greater contact with the Colombia church," he says. "At the same time, Colombian nationals were saying, 'We cannot avoid our responsibility in reaching the indigenous peoples, but we need you to teach us.' "
The cooperative spirit emerging in the evangelical community poses a poignant question: Would the Protestant churches have forged this interdenominational harmony in a more peaceful climate? Probably not. Some church leaders speculate that violence has even played a part in the phenomenal growth the Colombian church is experiencing.
The first missionary came to the Aburr valley, which includes Medell'n and outlying communities, in 1889. "By 1970, there were only 500 baptized evangelicals in this whole valley, out of about 3 million people," Voelkel says. "Now there are 15,000 to 20,000 evangelicals here. Violence has undoubtedly stimulated people to be concerned about eternal things and, therefore, more open to the gospel of hope."
For his part, Guillermo Tirana sees an open door for effective work in Colombia. "This is the moment the Lord is using for people to find his way," he says. "There is a very real commitment to spread the gospel. Secondly, in moments of affliction, people are thirsty for God."
Leaders such as Tirana, Esquivia, and Castellanos persevere on multiple fronts—political, social, and spiritual—to bring their compatriots to Jesus. They do it because, in the final analysis, they know that this is the only real hope for bringing peace to their troubled nation.
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