Church in Colombia only voice for the people as armed factions battle

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[Editor’s Note: This is the tenth in a series of articles by Inés San Martín exploring the state of the Catholic Church in Pope Francis’ home continent of Latin America. The ninth can be found here.]

ROSARIO, Argentina – As guerrilla groups begin rearming and illegally planting drug crops to sustain themselves, violence is once again on the rise in Colombia, and some fear the country will again fight with Mexico for the dubious honor of being the most dangerous country in the world to be a priest or missionary.

“Assuming with coherence the values of the Gospel and the mission in such complex contexts as the territories where there are high levels of violence and state abandonment will always be a risk for Christians,” said Bishop Juan Carlos Cardenas of Pasto, a diocese in western Colombia.

In the rural areas, armed groups are back to placing landmines, and communities in some regions are being forcibly confined by militias setting curfews and blocking residents from moving around freely.

There are some areas where left-wing guerrillas dominate, others where right-wing paramilitaries are gaining ground, and yet others where urban gangs are making power grabs.

Caught in the middle are the people, and since the State seems to be absent, the main intermediaries are Christian leaders: Catholic bishops, priests and catechists, as well as their Evangelical counterparts.

With three in four people in Colombia – including those who belong to armed groups – describing themselves as Catholic, being a member of the clergy affords a measure of safety, but their collars do not guarantee free pass. Yet that modicum level of freedom often lets clerics get to the places where activists can’t — and the State won’t — go.

The bishops “have always been clearly on the side of those who suffer the consequences of unjust violence and raise their voices for them,” Cardenas told Crux

Moreover, he pointed out, they not only speak in favor of those who suffer, but they are “present, accompanying them in their suffering and helping those communities as much as they possibly can.”

Bishop Rubén Darío Jaramillo of the port city of Buenaventura says the Church must be present in Colombian society, despite the risks.

“I am not afraid,” Jaramillo said. “I am not interested in my life, but in the life of the whole community. I am not afraid, I keep walking the streets, going from one place to another.”

“The last thing I am going to do is to lock myself up or run away,” he said. “I am at the head of a community that needs someone to raise their voice. We will continue with the protection of God and what the Colombian State gives us.”

Open Doors International, a Christian watchdog group, notes in its regular reports that anti-Christian violence by Colombia’s armed groups is stunningly routine. In part because Christians generally don’t support either the revolution or counterinsurgency; in part, because they’re suspected of informing for the government or the opposition; and also because they oppose the drug trade that’s become a primary revenue stream for armed factions of all stripes.

Jaramillo faces constant death threats, to the point that the National Conciliation Commission had to release a statement earlier this month in the prelate’s defense. The bishop has become a thorn in the side of both sides for denouncing the ongoing violence in Colombia’s largest port, and for publicly complaining that the national government is absent in the city.

“The other bishops of the Southwest, we were present some time ago accompanying the Bishop of Buenaventura who had been threatened by similar things,” Cardenas said. “It seemed to me an authentically evangelical and fraternal gesture: A message of being with our brother bishops who must cross the stormy sea of conflict.”

What truly concerns Cardenas, however, is the fact that “it is not only the pastor who is at risk, but the whole community with him. In such cases, how important is the solidarity of the international community.”

The bishop said that there are “many causes” for the upsurge in violence, and he believes the time has come for Colombia to once again talk about it, because “it is a complex phenomenon, with multiple actors and variables.”

“But focusing on what is happening with the armed groups on the route to the Pacific, a common element is that of illicit crops [most of them of coca],” Cardenas said. “This is a critical corridor that many want to control.”

As the prelate pointed out during his conversation with Crux, when the Colombian government signed the 2016 “Havana” agreements signaling an end to the decades long conflict ravaging the nation, only one of the two main guerrilla groups signed it. The others, known today as “The Dissidences,” remained in the territories, occupying the corridor that is so coveted today.

As factions within the group that signed the peace accord go back to violence, there is now “open fighting” to regain control of the territory, Cardenas said. “This has brought new displacements, because, as always, the civilian population remains in the middle.”

“But the illicit crops are there because historically the state has had a weak presence in those areas or has even been absent,” he said. “It is easy to talk about eradicating illicit crops, but if there is no clear and structural proposal, with social investment, road infrastructure, and a guarantee of an alternative agricultural production chain that guarantees income for the peasants, it will be very difficult.”

“People cannot be left alone in this situation,” said Cardenas.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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