WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Mennonite Central Committee partner Justapaz, a ministry of the Mennonite Church of Colombia, is calling on churches to pray and take action for Colombia.
Justapaz reports an ongoing state of crisis in the northern Colombian province of Córdoba. So far in 2009, six Protestant church leaders from southern Córdoba have been murdered by paramilitary armed groups.
Several attempted murders and dozens of death threats have forced the displacement of hundreds of people. Some churches have been literally caught in the crossfire. In one town, the lives of six pastors were threatened if they failed to make extortion payments. Many victims were targeted for their community leadership in land-rights struggles and for opposing the violence affecting their communities.
Justapaz is profoundly concerned about what it sees as the ongoing collusion between rearmed paramilitary groups and Colombian public security forces, as well as the lack of response from other state agencies to this violence. "We would like to see a change in this marriage between the paramilitaries and the army. If the army were to really fight these groups it would be different," stated a local pastor. (Names of those quoted in this article are not included due to safety concerns.)
In recent conversations pastors and community leaders spoke of their deep fear of reporting on paramilitary operations that have intensified in the past five months. One said, "If the [state agents and paramilitary groups] knew what we were telling you, as soon as we left this meeting we'd be shot. We don't dare talk about these things with Colombian authorities. It's just too dangerous."
However, church leaders are speaking up. "We could easily be killed for saying this, but the international church needs to know," one said.
In Córdoba in 2008 there were 512 violent deaths. This is the highest violent death rate in the past 18 years. If the violence so far in
2009 is an indication, the rate will increase this year.
According to local leaders and local and regional analysts, the current surge is driven by a territorial dispute between paramilitary groups and their economic interest in drug trafficking routes.
Justapaz leaders say the groups target local pastors and leaders as a strategy of coercion to gain more land to control the routes. The number of violent deaths documented by Justapaz, as well as the analysis of local leaders, suggests that these groups are seeking to consolidate their control.
Justapaz has documented at least three murders in the past four months. The following church and community leaders were killed by armed men: Pastor Rafael Velásquez on September 6, Marco Fidel Suárez on July 24 and Jhon Jairo Martínez on June 28. This is a great loss to their families and church community.
We call you to:
* Pray for the safety, strength and guidance of the people of Córdoba.
Pray that they may persevere in their commitment to working for God's vision of a nonviolent Colombia, where all may live in peace with dignity. Pray also for those responsible for this violence that they may turn themselves in, seek restoration of the damage they have done and transform their lives.
* Take action by contacting your government representatives and call for the protection of human rights for Colombians. Urge the Colombian government to investigate these violations. U.S. residents can sign a letter to the State Department by following this link.
By Janna Hunter-Bowman, Justapaz and Theo Sither, MCC Washington