18.12.08 17:22 Age: 3 yrs

The Colombian people want and deserve peace, say Living Letters



Farmers in one of the humanitarian zones visited by the Living Letters team in Colombia's northwestern region. © William Delgado/WCC

"Enough is enough! The Colombian people want and deserve peace." With this message, members of a Living Letters team began their journey home after visiting this South American country on behalf of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in early December.


"The message we are taking with us is very clear", said the Rev. Christopher Ferguson at the end of the visit: "The peasants, the internally displaced and the indigenous peoples are clamouring for the return of their lands, for justice, for the government to keep its promises and for an end to violence. In short: enough is enough! The Colombian people want and deserve peace."


Living Letters are small international, ecumenical teams. Within the framework of the WCC Decade to Overcome Violence, they travel to different parts of the world where Christians are striving to promote peace. Their goal is to express the solidarity of the ecumenical family and learn how people are dealing with the challenges that face them.


Ferguson, who is the New York-based WCC representative to the United Nations, stressed that, although only Colombians themselves can build peace in their own country, the international community should support them to do so. Instead, it is helping to perpetuate the situation by "ignoring massive forced displacement and disappearances," he added.


The visit to Colombian churches, ecumenical organizations and civil society movements took place from 6 to 12 December. The programme included the capital Bogotá, the city of Barranquilla in the north of the country and locations in the western and north-western regions of the country that have suffered badly from armed violence and the forced displacement of people.


"The work done by the churches in the Ecumenical Network of Colombia is extremely valuable", said Bishop Aldo Etchegoyen, of the Evangelical Methodist Church of Argentina. "The churches are the first to express solidarity with the victims and they are very committed to protecting human rights. In some regions, their ministers perform a difficult and dangerous task."


Resisting violence on several fronts


One of the most violent countries in the world, Colombia has been ravaged by an armed conflict involving the army, two groups of left-wing rebels and right-wing paramilitaries since the 1960s. Tens of thousands of Colombians have been killed while some three million have been forced from their homes. Drug-related crime aggravates the situation.


On 7 December, at the offices of the Colombian Episcopal Conference in Bogotá, the Living Letters team participated in the fourth Day of Prayer for the release of kidnap victims and for the truth about the disappeared.


An estimated 3,000 people have been kidnapped and are held hostage by rebel groups, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).


It is difficult to estimate the number of enforced disappearances committed by the military and paramilitary groups as part of their counterinsurgency strategy. Amnesty International puts the figure at between about 15,000 (the number of cases being investigated by the office of the general attorney) and 30,000 (denounced by human rights organisations).


On 10 December, on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the delegation took part in a march in Barranquilla organized by the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes. Formed by a number of non-governmental organizations, the movement demands justice for the "forgotten" victims of paramilitary and state violence.


The visit and the evidence gathered by the team led it to criticize President Álvaro Uribe's government. "There is a major contradiction between the government's portrayal of itself as democratic and its markedly authoritarian character", said Etchegoyen. He also criticized the "Plan Colombia", through which the United States channels "large sums of money for the purchase of arms in the guise of humanitarian aid."


The delegation highlighted the work of local churches, ecumenical groupings and civil society organizations. "We have seen very practical and interesting examples of peaceful resistance to violence", said Ferguson. "One example is the establishment of peasant communities in 'humanitarian zones', where they can find refuge from armed violence. They are also able to claim their rights to the land from which they were expelled by violence, with the connivance of the state, to make way for major economic projects", he added.


Ecumenical solidarity in action


"The visit of this group made us feel that churches from all over the world have been here. It has given us spiritual energy and encouraged us to persevere as a church committed to the life of those suffering from forced displacement", said the Rev. Gloria Ulloa, executive secretary of the Coastal Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia.


"It was compelling to listen to Bishop Solito Toquero, of the United Methodist Church of the Philippines and observe how many similarities there are in the conflicts in our two countries", Ulloa added. "The commitment of the Philippine churches re-energizes our effort to move forward with ours."


The executive secretary of the Ecumenical Network of Colombia, Osvaldo Ardila, thanked the team for having completed "a hard journey, but one that is full of hope, solidarity and pastoral support and advice for the churches, families, communities and movements."


The Rev. Jorge Ziljstra, secretary for the Caribbean and Great Colombia region of the Latin American Council of Churches, based in Puerto Rico, said the Living Letters' mission does not end with the visit to the country in question. "If you send a letter, you expect a reply, and perhaps from now on we can be 'living letters' from Colombia to the world, and make the voice of those who are suffering here heard in places that are unaware of the situation in this country."


Additional information on the visit of Living Letters to Colombia


WCC member churches in Colombia