Towards ecumenical accompaniment in Colombia

By Marcelo Schneider
Posted May 4, 2012

[World Council of Churches] The concept of accompaniment, including spiritual and pastoral accompaniment, is the main inspiration of the churches involved in the Programme of Ecumenical Accompaniment in Colombia (PEAC), an initiative of the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI) carried out with support from the World Council of Churches (WCC) and other Christian organizations.

The programme is currently implemented to support the communities affected by more than four decades of violence in Colombia caused by deeply rooted social injustice and inequity. At the heart of the armed conflict is the struggle for land and territory.

In recent decades the country has witnessed nearly five million people being driven away from their lands. At the same time, 2,520 cases of forced disappearance, out of a total of 35,665 crimes confessed by the paramilitary forces, were reported in 2009. 2,388 mass graves have been found in the country and 2,091 bodies have been exhumed.

“Colombia is today a very dangerous place to act as a human rights advocate. All those who promote justice and struggle for rights end up becoming the targets. There is an industry of fear installed in the San Onofre,” says Milton Mejía, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, who has been actively involved in the development process of the PEAC.

San Onofre has remained one of the most conflict-ridden regions of Colombia, where disputes over land among armed groups have caused gross violation of human rights.

“It is not a problem for the state to give each victim financial compensation. Yet the government is not interested in the changing state of human rights violations evident in situations like these,” says German Zárate from the Presbyterian Church of Colombia.

“We have a great constitution that ensures the rights of people of African descent and of the indigenous people. However, the gap between what is written in the law and the daily reality of the country is increasing. In the case of indigenous peoples, for example, the government says that these groups are entitled to their lands, but not to the mineral resources in their land,” he added.

For Sergio Antonio Toscano-Bassa, one of the leaders of Finca Alemania collective farm, the ecumenical accompaniment programme has the potential to challenge the status-quo.

“We are always afraid. Therefore, the prospect of the arrival of people from the churches and people from abroad brings a bit of tranquillity. It shows that we are not alone and completely isolated,” he said.

Ecumenical response to the Colombian situation

It is evident that civil society and churches in Colombia are in a real need of support from the international community. Therefore the role of Christian institutions in showing their presence in the local communities threatened by the armed conflicts can help lead to a political instead of a military solution to the situation.

For the chairperson of the CLAI Colombia Roundtable, Episcopal Bishop Francisco Duque, “The communities seek refuge and the support of ethical and credible institutions such as churches, regardless of denomination. For that reason it is necessary to have coordinated and focused efforts on behalf of the churches.”

According to credible human rights organizations, government institutions and the military have built alliances with paramilitary groups to rob the peasants of their land.

In this situation, while there are processes open to investigation of these crimes, the communities still do not trust government institutions. Therefore, the need for third parties such as churches to initiate actions and accompany those defending their own rights becomes even more crucial.

“We are confident that dynamics of the conflict must change. The armed groups cannot only be pursued by the national justice system, and it must be shown that the actions of these groups outside the law have a political cost,” said Duque.

He went on to say that “international support encourages us to continue to act for peace in our pursuit of justice and equity.”

According to Zoraida Castillo, from Lutheran World Relief, the developments around PEAC created “increased communication and interest to share experiences among organizations and churches.”

As part of the PEAC process, a joint visit to San Onofre was organized in December last year, involving church leaders from Methodist, Anglican and Presbyterian churches, as well as representatives of the ACT Colombia Forum.

Along with working very closely on human rights issues on local level, CLAI has played a crucial role to influence churches at the global level as well, especially in regard to the situation in Colombia and the PEAC initiative. As the main regional ecumenical organization, especially through the CLAI Colombia Roundtable, it has expressed solidarity and commitment to the struggle for justice in Colombia.

In the midst of its preparations for its next General Assembly to be held in Cuba in 2013 addressing the theme “Affirming an Ecumenism of Concrete Gestures,” CLAI sees the situation in Colombia as one of the urgent agendas for ecumenical cooperation and response in the Latin American region.

— Marcelo Schneider works as the WCC communication liaison for Latin America, based in Porto Alegre, Brazil. He travelled to Colombia including Montes de María and Finca Alemania to report on the ecumenical initiatives in the country.