BOGOTÁ, Colombia – When a Polish priest named Jerzy Popiełuszko was beatified in 2010, he became the leading symbol of an entire people’s suffering, in his case Poles living under Soviet domination. A similar role is played in Sicily by the Rev. Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi, killed by the Mob in 1993 and beatified in 2013.
In the Latin American nation of Colombia, however, there is no such single, towering icon of the suffering imposed by a civil war that’s been underway for more than 50 years – in part, as awful as it may sound, because there are simply too many candidates.
The national Victim’s Unit here officially recognizes more than 7 million victims of a 55-year war involving the government, Marxist guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries, and heavily armed narco-traffickers. More than 220,000 Colombians have perished in the conflict.
To be sure, not all the victims are Catholic. The small Mennonite Church here has put out an annual report on Protestant victims for the last decade, and each year it’s a depressingly long list. Scores of politicians, intellectuals, activists, and ordinary people, often with no clear religious affiliation or motivation, have also paid a steep price.
Yet in a nation of 47 million where 79 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, it’s inevitable that Catholicism has a bumper crop of martyrs.
For outsiders, the emotional toll of living in such circumstances is often hard to imagine.
In a Wednesday interview at his modest family home in Bogotá, Bishop Misael Vacca Ramirez broke down in tears while recalling his 2004 kidnapping by leftist guerrillas. Unable to continue the conversation, Vacca explained that his turmoil wasn’t about his own story, but rather that of so many other Colombians who faced similar circumstances, but weren’t lucky enough to survive.
There are at least three compelling figures who could serve as the patron saint of Colombia’s martyrs:
Archbishop Isaias Duarte Cancino of Cali
Duarte was shot to death in March 2002 outside the Church of the Good Shepherd in one of his city’s poorest neighborhoods.
The Rev. José Elver Rojas Herrer, a communications officer for the bishops’ conference, said that Duarte deserves to be the “Romero of Colombia,” referring to the Salvadoran archbishop killed in 1980 who was beatified last weekend in San Salvador.
Duarte was a fierce critic of what Rojas described as a “terrifying marriage” among all the main actors in Colombia’s conflict – leftist guerrilla movements such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), various right-wing paramilitary groups, and powerful drug cartels.
“He denounced the construction of a state within the state in Colombia, in which everyone was involved,” said the Rev. Darío Echeverri González, who serves as secretary of a National Conciliation Commission sponsored by the Church.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, who served as a representative of the US bishops at Duarte’s funeral in 2002, told Crux that Duarte’s story deserves to be better known.
“Whenever our knees start shaking, witnesses such as Duarte can help us stay strong,” Wenski said.
On the other hand, some feel that Duarte may not be the most emblematic example of the Catholic response to Colombia’s conflict, because sometimes he could stoke tensions rather than reducing them.
“He was very blunt,” said Archbishop Luis Augusto Castro Quiroga of Tunja, president of the national bishops’ conference.
“Whatever he felt he would say out loud, right away,” Castro said. “He made some mistakes in his declarations to the media. He’d say, ‘I know for sure the names of those who did this or that,’ without always confirming that the information was accurate.”
There’s also the complication that 13 years after his death, it’s still unclear who exactly killed Duarte. While a handful of FARC leaders have been tried in absentia, Castro said key FARC leaders have reached out to the Church vowing they weren’t involved; he believes them.
Castro thinks the drug cartels were behind the assassination.
Yet another question mark is an accusation from FARC leaders that Duarte was secretly allied with a right-wing paramilitary leader named Carlos Castaño Gil, a charge taken sufficiently seriously here that the equivalent of Colombia’s attorney general’s office has opened an investigation.
Bishop Emilio Jaramillo Monsalve of Arauca
Others point to Jaramillo, a bishop who was tortured and executed in 1989 by the ELN. Jaramillo, 73 at the time, was kidnapped in October 1989 by forces of the ELN along with a priest traveling with him who was later released unharmed.
Jaramillo’s body was found the next day along a road linking two small towns, with two rifle shots in the head and signs of torture before his death.
Jaramillo had a reputation as a friend of the poor, organizing peasants to defend their rights, and also investing in popular schools and hospitals. His efforts at mediation of the conflict were seen by ELN commanders as a way of propping up the dominant powers in the region.
Rojas, however, said Jaramillo may not be the right figure to illustrate the larger Catholic story in Colombia, because his death was linked to “intensely specific local realities” in his region.
Castro said that the Colombian bishops opened a beatification cause for Jaramillo, but it stalled in Rome “because he wasn’t killed for hatred of the faith,” referring to the traditional Catholic standard for martyrdom.
Castro agreed that with the beatification of Romero, a new concept of martyrdom is gaining ground – death not in hatred of the faith, but in hatred of charity – which may be applicable to cases such as Jaramillo.
Sister Yolanda Cerón Delgado of Tumaco
Cerón was a human rights activist in the conflict-ridden region of Tumaco who was killed in front of a church as she was leaving Mass in September 2001.
As director of a church-run social pastoral office, Cerón was an outspoken critic of collaboration between paramilitary groups and the Colombian military, including abuses committed in order to expand a local oil palm production against the will of the people. She was also known for her work on behalf of Afro-Colombian communities on the country’s Pacific Coast.
In 2008, a former right-wing paramilitary leader acknowledged having ordered Cerón’s assassination, but to date he has not faced prosecution because he was extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges.
Recently Cerón was selected as a symbol of all the Church’s victims of the conflict on a list of victims put together as part of a current round of peace talks being held in Havana, Cuba.
Castro, however, wonders if the whole idea of lifting up a single Catholic martyr for special attention risks distorting the reality of the conflict.
“There is no specific persecution for the faith in Colombia,” he said. “What we have is violence that affects all the people, and the Church is caught up in it because it stands with the people.”
“Whenever a priest is killed and someone asks me what I think about it, I always say we’re simply sharing the suffering of the people,” Castro said.
In that context, Castro said, he’s ambivalent about seeking a lone Catholic hero.
“There are more than 7 million victims in Colombia,” he said. “What sense does it make to focus just on those of us from the Church?”