Saturday, December 6, 2014

I want to be more like Jhonatan

I want to be more like Jhonatan.

He just took on the Colombian Armed Forces and won. He used only nonviolence grounded in faith. He didn't seek to take on the Colombian Army - they picked a fight with him. He just sought to keep the faith. He had right on his side, and he knew it.

In my next to last post here, I asked for your support to help us #freeJhonatan. He had been forcibly recruited by the Colombian Army in March 2013. The Colombian Armed Forces believed that because Colombia has mandatory military service for all young men (with a few exceptions) that they had the right to take Jhonatan against his will. But Jhonatan told them something else... that fighting wars and taking lives was against God's will. Jhonatan said that he was a Christian and that Jesus said we should love our enemies, not kill them, so he refused to serve. At this point, Jhonatan didn't know that international law and the Colombian constitution both guarantee any individual's right to freedom of conscience.

The Colombian Army shipped him off to a remote outpost in Colombia's eastern plains, near the border with Venezuela, a region where leftist guerrillas and rightwing neo-paramilitary armies control territory and regularly skirmish with the Colombian Army. Jhonatan was ridiculed for his faith. He was told that he must be confused because other Christians happily took up arms. Jhonatan kept saying no.

Eventually Jhonatan and his fellow recruits were given a brief home-leave. He decided to not return to the base. In the eyes of the army he had gone AWOL. In Jhonatan's eyes this was the only way to keep the army from continuing to violate his freedom of conscience. By now Jhonatan understood that he was a C.O. and he had rights in Colombia.

Jhonatan once again enrolled in his hometown university and began studying mechanical engineering. Then on September 4th he was stopped by police outside the university and asked for his i.d. The army had put out a warrant for his arrest, and the police detained him on the spot. What the army didn't know was that in the interim, with the help of the CO project at Justapaz - a Mennonite peacebuilding and advocacy organization - Jhonatan had appealed for his release and his case had made it all the way to the Constitutional Court.

The following day the police turned Jhonatan over to the Army and he was held at the Nueva Granada Battalion in Barrancabermeja. Two weeks later, the Constitutional Court ruled that the army was in fact violating his inalienable right to freedom of conscience and religious freedom ordering his immediate release. Shortly thereafter Jhonatan walked out of the military prison into his mother’s embrace and into a spotlight that he had never sought. TV cameras from all the major stations in Colombia were there to record his story. 

Jhonatan's case came about at a crucial time. Just as the Colombian government and Colombia's largest guerrilla group are nearing the completion of a second year of negotiations, and the country is seriously contemplating the possibility of ending this armed conflict. Jhonatan and many other Colombian COs, both Christian and secular, are saying they want nothing to do with the fighting.  

Jhonatan reminds me that Micah's encouragement "to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God", in war zones such as Colombia and the streets of the United States can be truly revolutionary. I want to be more like Jhonatan.

2014 Colombia Religious Freedom and Armed Conflict Report

2014 Colombia Religious Freedom and Armed Conflict Report
Justapaz and the Evangelical Council of Colombia Peace Commission
Historical Memory and Political Advocacy Program

Currently several issues limit the full practice of religious freedom for Protestant churches in Colombia. Colombia´s internal armed conflict has played a role in these challenges and the following issues should be considered within the context of the armed conflict and post-conflict Colombia:

  • Extortion of pastors and churches
  • Murders and death threats
  • Armed group restrictions on freedom to worship
  • Conscientious objection to forced military service
  • Peace process participation

Extortion of Pastors and Churches

Extortion of pastors and churches in Colombia is on the rise. Neo-paramilitary groups are the perpetrators in most cases and use extortion as a means of financing their operations.

We have documented numerous cases where pastors and churches have been extorted and many others where they have been killed, threatened and/or forcibly displaced for refusing to pay extortion money; however we know of many more cases where the pastor and/or church have chosen not to go public with their case out of fear of retaliation from the illegal armed group.

Galatia Church Case: Extortion
Case 21, A Prophetic Call 9
Victims: Ricardo Alzate* and Galatia Church, of the Association of Evangelical Churches of the Caribbean
Date: February 2, 2013
Location: Tierralta, Córdoba
Alleged perpetrators: Neo-paramilitaries

Ricardo Alzate*, 45, was a farmer who was married with three children. Ricardo* was the pastor of the Galatia Church within the Association of Evangelical Churches of the Caribbean.

On February 2, 2013, Pastor Ricardo Alzate* was extorted by presumed Black Eagles neo-paramilitaries in Tierralta, Córdoba. That day a man came to his house looking for him and introduced himself as a commander of the Black Eagles. He said that they were at war, and that all of the area’s people and groups must support the Black Eagles. He said the church was responsible for a 200,000 peso (about US$100) payment. The pastor told the man that neither he nor the church had any funds. The neo-paramilitary member insisted on the payment, and told the pastor he must borrow the money from people in town, and that he would accompany the pastor to do so. Pastor Ricardo* was forced to go on his motorcycle with the man, to borrow the money and give it to him.

Illegal armed groups linked to drug trafficking operate in the area. The number of extortions in the area has risen over the past several years.

Murders and Death Threats 

Armed groups continue to systematically attack community leaders and organizers, especially those working to increase political participation and for land restitution. In ten years we have documented 336 murders and 880 threats of this nature against members of Protestant churches.

Pastor Stalin Ortiz Case: Homicide, Death Threat
Case 2, A Prophetic Call 9
Victim: Stalin Ortiz Gutiérrez, of the Church of the Nazarene
Date: January 8, 2013
Location: Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca
Alleged perpetrators: Unknown

Stalin Ortiz Gutiérrez was 54, married, and the father of six children. Stalin was a councilmember for the Buenaventura municipality and the pastor of the Church of the Nazarene.

Pastor Stalin was murdered on January 8, 2013, in Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca, by unknown assailants. Stalin had left a meeting that had included Mayor Bartolo Valencia, Senator Edinson Delgado Ruiz, and council member Hernán Sinisterra, when he was hit by several bullets fired by armed men traveling by motorcycle.

The pastor’s family states that the murder was provoked by the complaints the pastor had made about the mismanagement of public funding in the Luis Ablanque de la Plata Hospital, and that the pastor had felt threatened by the mayor. According to the source, just days prior to his murder, the pastor was approached by men from an armed group who told him that there was an order out to kill him.

There are several armed groups disputing for territorial control in Buenaventura which generate death threats, forced displacement, and murders.

Religious Intolerance

In numerous regions of Colombia illegal armed groups directly violate freedom of religion by limiting the times and places that churches can gather, restricting the activities that congregations can carry out and in some cases burning church buildings. This demonstrates the extent of territorial and social control these armed groups enjoy in areas with little to no state presence.

Putumayo Case: Religious Intolerance and Confinement
Case 19, A Prophetic Call 9
Victims: Church of God and United Pentecostal Church of Colombia in Putumayo
Date: 2013 - 2014
Location: Putumayo
Alleged perpetrators: FARC-EP

In the province of Putumayo, there were several evangelical Christian churches that worked in urban and rural areas, including the Church of God and the United Pentecostal Church of Colombia.

On July 20, 2013, the FARC-EP’s 32nd Front published a document titled “Behavior Manual for the proper functioning of communities” in Putumayo, which included restrictions on all church activities.

Rules 40 and 41 of the manual say: “Evangelical chapels will only be built in the municipal capitals” and “Pastors and priests will hold services only in churches in municipal capitals”. Since the release of the manual, rural churches have been closed and pastors have had their travel restricted.

According to the source, pastors from the United Pentecostal Church of Colombia were murdered in the first three months of 2014 in Putumayo by the FARC-EP guerrilla.

Conscientious Objection

Despite the Constitutional Court’s ruling C-728 of 2009, which defines conscientious objection to military service as a fundamental right and calls on the Colombian Congress to pass a law to regulate conscientious objection, the Colombian armed forces, civilian and military judges and other state authorities continue to ignore and violate this right.

Civil society organizations do not have exact figures on the number of cases of forced recruitment of conscientious objectors and many cases go unreported. The number of cases documented by Justapaz increased in 2014. Some conscientious objectors have reported suffering religious discrimination during their illegal forced recruitment.

In cases where conscientious objectors are able to avoid forced recruitment, the armed forces refuse to grant them their military papers which are needed to gain civilian employment and often to graduate from college.

Jhonatan Vargas Case: Recruitment of a conscientious objector, arbitrary detention and threat
Case 9, A Prophetic Call 9
Victim: Jhonatan David Vargas Becerra, of the Foursquare Church
Date: 2013 - 2014
Location: Barrancabermeja, Santander
Alleged perpetrators: Colombian National Army

Jhonatan David Vargas, 18, was living with his mother and two sisters, and was a student. Jhonatan was part of the youth group at Foursquare Church.

Jhonatan was forcibly enlisted and threatened by the National Army in Barrancabermeja, Santander on March 18, 2013. That day, Jhonatan went to the 34th Military District in Barrancabermeja to clarify his military status. There, he was forcibly recruited even though he demonstrated that he was studying at the Industrial University of Santander and argued that his religious convictions impeded him from serving in the military. The soldiers threatened to begin legal procedures against him for disobedience and insubordination. Jhonatan was taken to the Tolima Military District and later to “Bochica” Battalion 28 ASPC in Puerto Carreño, in the distant province of Vichada.

Jhonatan and his mother filed several legal complaints to request an end to his detention, arguing that Jhonatan’s membership in Foursquare Church and his religious convictions impeded his use of any type of violence and his learning to use weapons and combat techniques. They also argued that at the time of his conscription, Jhonatan was enrolled in his church’s theological studies program and was pursuing higher education at the Industrial University of Santander.

Jhonatan was detained by the military for three months and, thanks to the intervention of religious entities and the Human Rights Ombudsman's Office, he was not obligated to swear an oath of allegiance to the flag and take up arms. When Jhonatan was given some rest days, he decided to not return to the battalion as the only available option for his right to conscientious objection to be respected.

Jhonatan has had two legal appeals rejected by appeals courts. However, his case was selected for review by the Constitutional Court.

On September 4, 2014 at 8:30 p.m., when leaving the Industrial University of Santander, Jhonatan and other young men were stopped by police who asked for their i.d. cards. When the police ran Jhonatan’s i.d. number through the system they found a warrant for his arrest. He was immediately detained and taken to the Las Granjas police station in Barrancabermeja. The next day he was transferred to the Army’s Nueva Granada Battalion also in Barrancabermeja.

Jhonatan spent 14 days detained at the Nueva Granada Battalion. Jhonatan was released following the Constitutional Court’s ruling on his case, reaffirming his right to conscientious objection and religious freedom and ordering his release and that the military grant him his military papers.

Peace Process Participation

Over the past two years, civil society has had limited opportunities to participate in the ongoing peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC. The two parties agreed to facilitate public forums on each of the points of their agenda as a means of civil society participation. Each forum has included approximately 1300 people and has sought to ensure broad representation in terms of gender, age, ethnicity and other criteria. Religious diversity unfortunately has not been one of the criteria, not even for the forum on victims. This forum had created great expectation amongst church-folk, who have had a particular experience of victimization as evidenced in this report.

The two parties also agreed to bring five groups of 12 victims to dialogue in Havana and decided that the UNDP, the National University and the Catholic Church would choose the victims. Once again, in this process, religious diversity was ignored. This is a shame given the great opportunities provided by religious organizations and the work they are doing in, peacebuilding, reconciliation, and overcoming violence.


Freedom of religion and freedom of worship are enshrined as fundamental rights in Article 19 of Colombia´s Constitution. The challenges highlighted above demonstrate the lack of public policies to fulfill this right in Colombia. In 1994 Colombian congress passed the Religious Freedom Law (133), creating an office in the Interior Ministry to promote religious freedom; years later the office was closed. Recently the Interior Ministry has named lawyer Lorena Ríos as special advisor for religious affairs, but the much needed office has not been reopened.

Religious freedom in Colombia has enjoyed numerous laws, decrees, resolutions, and rulings on a national level. It is apparent that the problem is not a lack of legislation but of implementation of the norms and a lack of political will to put them into practice.

Recommendations for the US Government

  • Political and economic support from the United State for the peace process and the implementation of possible peace accords is crucial. This is the time to increase aid for peacebuilding and to decrease military aid.
    • Increase aid for rural development: this could include adjusting counter-narcotics strategy along these lines so as to comply with portions of the peace accord.
    • Support urban peacebuilding initiatives.
    • Increase aid for land restitution and titling.
    • Pressure the Colombian government to respect the right to conscientious objection to forced military service. For many conscientious objectors this is a religious freedom issue.
  • Vocally support the participation of a diverse and representative cross-section of religious leaders in the peace talk participation mechanisms and in post-conflict processes:
    • Peace accord monitoring mechanisms
    • Truth commission
    • Demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants
    • Restorative justice projects
  • Support for transitional justice measures and human rights
    • Aid for civil society human rights organizations, including church-based projects.
    • Pressure for military human rights cases to be tried in civilian courts, not military tribunals.
    • Aid for the protection of human rights workers, with an emphasis on community leaders and organizers, including pastors. Recognition of extortion as a major human rights and religious freedom concern.
    • Pressure the Colombian government to dismantle neo-paramilitary groups, including the members of the Colombian military and police, national and international corporations and large-landowners that have promoted, employed and/or financed these groups.
    • Maintain the Leahy Law and Colombia-specific human rights conditions.
    • Declassify all U.S. government documents related to the Colombian armed conflict, such as was done in the cases of Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama and Peru. Pressure the Colombian government to declassify all military and civilian intelligence archives.
    • Support the creation of a truth commission.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Land of Egrets, Guava Trees and Big Hair!

Juanita and Paola speaking with El Garzal community leaders

This past Saturday, July 19, I traveled out to the Magdalena Medio region with two colleagues from Justapaz, Jenny and Angélica. We were looking forward to meeting again with the community of El Garzal and strategizing with them about how to best support their ongoing struggle for their land and to visiting the rural community of El Guayabo for the first time, after having heard about their struggle from Pastor Salvador in El Garzal and from the Christian Peacemaker Teams

Delicious stew in the making.

We were also joined by my wife, Paola, a physical therapist, and Juanita, a public health educator, both professors in the health sciences department at Bogotá's Rosario University. They were there to do some initial research they hope will lead to a project aimed at improving El Garzal's access to health services. Currently it can take anywhere from two to eight hours to get to the nearest doctor from El Garzal.

In the afternoon, Jenny, Angélica and I spoke with the community leaders about the challenges of their case. Up until the middle of last year we were hopeful that the case was making progress in Colombia's Rural Development Institute - Incoder, but after a change in Minister of Agriculture, the Director of Incoder and the Coordinator of Incoder's Land Management Division, we are back to the drawing boards. The community, probably better than we do, understands that this is a long and difficult process and their resoluteness is an inspiration. 

Pastor Salvador with pictures
A special treat on this visit was finally delivering a bunch of pictures and beautiful picture books [web-based photo essay/pdf], from M.R. Georgevich, a UCC delegate who visited El Garzal in 2013. The smiles that lit up the community members' faces as they found themselves in the pictures were priceless. 

Sunday began by saying goodbye to Paola and Juanita at 5:30 a.m. - on their way back to Bogotá, followed by a 6 a.m. worship-service at the El Garzal Foursquare Church - in this climate it is best to beat the heat by getting an early start. After worship and a breakfast of arepas, scrambled eggs and black coffee, we set out on the hour-long hike to the edge of the river. There a large canoe with an outboard motor - known here as a Johnson - awaited to ferry us across the Magdalena River and to the community of El Guayabo.

As we arrived, the community proudly displayed their new sign, which told of who they are, "a peasant community defending their territory", what they believe in, "civility, justice and peace", and who supports them, numerous organizations including the Christian Peacemaker Teams.

Sign identifying the El Guayabo peasant community
We met with the community on the farm where riot police had shown up last week to evict them. Eventually the eviction failed, as the community nonviolently resisted. We gathered under a large mango tree to hear of how they had taken over the land after a previous owner had abandoned it over thirty years ago. Pastor Abel of the El Guayabo Foursquare Church joined us and opened the meeting with prayer. We learned that most of the community attends one of the three churches with services there, the Foursquare Church, the United Pentecostal Church and the Catholic Church.    
One of the El Guayabo farms

A highlight of the meeting was sharing prayers and messages of support we had received from churches and individuals in the United States, Mexico and Colombia. 

We join with Christian Peacemaker Teams and their call for urgent action on behalf of El Guayabo. You can sign a petition to the police inspector here. Please continue to keep both El Garzal and El Guayabo in your thoughts and prayers.

Saying goodby to El Guayabo
After spending the night with different families in El Guayabo, we set out early Monday morning for the three-hour trip back up the Magdalena River to Barrancabermeja. There we met the Middle Magdalena Peace and Development Program - led by the Catholic Diocese of Barrancabermeja and heard their thoughts on how we could best support the communities of El Garzal, El Guayabo and Las Pavas. Most striking was their longer and broader view of how all of these land disputes point to a larger regional dispute between large landowners, in cahoots with neo-paramilitary groups and drug-trafficking mafias, to push peasants off the land. They encouraged our continued and deepening involvement on behalf of these peasant communities. 

It's amazing what getting out of forced conscription can do for hair and smiles!
In the afternoon, we met with conscientious objector, Jhonatan Vargas, who was forcibly recruited against his will, and in violation of his fundamental right to freedom of conscience, by the Colombian army last year. Since being allowed to leave the army base where he was being held, Jhonatan has refused to return. The Colombian Constitutional court has ruled that forced military conscription of C.O.s is a violation of Colombia's constitution, but the military has refused to comply. Jhonatan is one of the brave young men who have taken personal risks in order to further this important cause. We were happy to hear that he has now finished his first semester of mechanical engineering studies at the Industrial University of Santander. I was struck by how much Jhonatan's hair grown since I had last seen him... clearly enjoying it's newfound freedom!