Caught in the conflict

International | Colombian evangelicals find themselves under attack by both guerrillas and paramilitary forces

Issue: "Wedgwood shooting," Oct. 2, 1999

Free-for-all violence against civilians in Colombia in two separate attacks has left evangelicals and others dead, homes and churches destroyed, and survivors fleeing for refuge in other cities. Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas are suspects in the summer murder of a pair of United Pentecostal Church pastors in central Colombia. The pastors, on a church-visiting trip, passed near the rebel-controlled demilitarized zone. None of Colombia's rival warring groups has claimed responsibility for killing the Pentecostals, whose bodies were found on the outskirts of rural Lejanías, a county south of Bogota that borders a FARC-controlled area the size of Switzerland. The murders raise to four the number of Pentecostal pastors who have been killed this year. Fifteen of the region's 76 churches have been closed since 1996 "by orders of actors in the armed conflict," reported a statement by Justapaz, a nonviolent program of the Colombian Mennonite Christian Church in Bogota. "Pastors located in areas of war-related violence are constantly receiving threats against their lives," the statement read. "Beginning in 1996, churches have received messages prohibiting them from gathering for worship in the area." That was because pastors' travel to churches lends itself to army or paramilitary infiltration, "and that the nonviolent message of the churches was counter to the purposes of war," the statement read. Increasing attacks against churchgoers are overshadowed by headline-grabbing news of U.S. involvement in Colombia's drug war, and of the kidnapping of North Americans. The latest such incident took place on Sept. 11, when guerrillas abducted an American, seven Canadian oil pipeline workers, and four European tourists in the dense Amazon forest of Ecuador's northwestern Sucumbios province. In the attack, 31 miles from the Colombian border, one Ecuadorian soldier who was guarding the pipeline workers died. State Department officials believe the abductions are the work of FARC, one of Colombia's two main guerrilla groups. But Ecuadorian police, who are still hunting for the party, say it could be either the leftist FARC or rightist paramilitaries trying to pry the guerrillas from Colombia's northern region. As both groups fight each other, their threat to civilian populations at large-and to neighboring countries-mounts. In July, in another apparently unrelated attack, some 300 armed paramilitary commandos with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia stormed the northern village of Saiza, rounded up residents on a sports playing court, and began shooting. Two of the eight victims killed belonged to Saiza's Presbyterian church. The paramilitary intruders in Saiza also burned buildings and looted other dwellings before leaving. Their parting warning to the town's approximately 3,000 residents was that all must leave within four days. Information on the fate of Saiza's evangelicals remains sketchy, said Adonaias Sepulveda, head elder of Central Presbyterian Church in Medellin. He is from Cordoba, the northern state that includes Saiza. The paramilitaries control much of Colombia's northern region and, Mr. Sepulveda noted, likely knew the villagers they attacked. "The paramilitaries were going around looking for the guerrillas," he said, and "really don't care whether the people they attack are innocent or guilty of supporting the guerrillas. It's all the same to them." The most recent assault marks the third on Saiza since 1990, Mr. Sepulveda said. Guerrillas perpetrated the previous two, which he described as less serious and not including violence against the church. Why would paramilitaries seek to wipe out the community where they are based? "None of this makes sense," he said, but strange actions are "the result of the burden of sin and evil this country is carrying," due to its long involvement with the drug trade and terrorism. While many of Saiza's residents have returned, Mr. Sepulveda said the village's Presbyterian pastor, Jesus Goes, did not return to Saiza; he expects further violence. "War has practically wiped out Saiza," he said. "It was a nice place. You could go out at whatever time, day or night, and go wherever you wanted without problems. "Now there's really no place you can go safely. You just have to live with patience, and with God's help."

-Deann Alford is a writer in Austin, Texas

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