By BosNewsLife Americas Service with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos.
BOGOTA, COLOMBIA (BosNewsLife)– Devoted Christians in south-eastern Colombia face a difficult Christmas amid reports that at least 150 churches have been closed down by leftist rebels.
Open Christian worship and other religious activities are forbidden in the rural areas controlled by the rebels, known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP), BosNewsLife monitored Thursday, December 19.
Among those targeted are especially Protestant churches and evangelical Christians, as well as active Roman Catholic churches, according to a published FARC-EP document.
The ‘manual for coexistence’ cites restrictions on religious freedom in the region of Putumayo, where the group’s 32nd front maintains control.
It says “Evangelical chapels may only be built in municipal capitals,” while “Pastors and priests will only hold their masses in the churches in the municipal capitals.”
Priests and pastors in the heavily rural Putumayo region who have attempted to carry out Christian activities outside these capitals were reportedly threatened or forced to flee their homes.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), an advocacy group investigating the situation, said the manual raises doubts over peace talks between leaders of the estimated 8,000 rebels and the government.
The peace agreement is aimed at ending a near 50-year conflict which left hundreds of thousands of dead and displaced more than 4.5 million people.
Yet, “The fact that this document was published and circulated…almost a year after the Colombian government and the FARC-EP entered into a formal peace dialogue raises questions once again about how any peace agreement will affect the civilian population,” said CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas.
The latest reported crackdown follows the reported killings of several prominent Christian leaders by the Marxist-Leninist oriented rebels.
Among those confirmed murdered is Reverend Manuel Camacho, who was killed in the Guaviare region in 2009, and Pastors Humberto Mendez and Joel Cruz Garcia in Huila in 2007. All three pastors reportedly defied FARC-EP restrictions on preaching and evangelising.
Some 150 churches “are believed to be shut down and religious is activity forbidden in south-eastern Colombia in zones under FARC-EP control,” according to rights investigators.
In a statement, the Colombian Council of Evangelical Churches Commission for Restoration, Life and Peace, said FARC-EP was responsible for 184 documented cases of religious intolerance over the past decade.
CSW’s Thomas told BosNewsLife that his group continues to be concerned that “the FARC-EP actively restricts the fundamental rights, including religious freedom, of the very people it claims to defend.”
FARC-EP are not the only threats to Christians who want to express their faith more publicly.
Open Doors, which supports reportedly persecuted Christians, has suggested that the FARC-EP attacks are part of a wider rebellion against devoted Christians in this South American nation of over 47 million people.
Under current President Juan Manuel Santos there has been a resurgence of armed groups, “who specifically target Christians because they know the Christian faith is not compatible with their values,” the groups commented.
Among those killed in armed attacks, were priests Bernardo Echeverry, 62, and Hector Fabio Cabrera, 35, who “ministered in San Sebastian Roman Catholic parish [of] Roldanillo village [in the] Valle department [area],” Open Doors said. They were were found murdered late on September 27 earlier this year, according to Christians.
In separate incidents, at least two pastors were killed in 2012 and about 300 indigenous Christians displaced from their homes, Open Doors said.
“Pagan indigenous populations receive material support from paramilitary organisations to persecute local Christians. These territories have become a safe haven for the guerrillas’ drug trafficking activities. Drug cartels and illegal armed groups continue to operate with impunity.”
For survivors of attacks life is difficult. Among them is Aira, whose 9-year-old daughter and husband Maximiliano Suarez, a local pastor, were killed on February 12, 2011.
“The fight is constant, but we feel joyful in knowing there are people who are praying for us, it encourages us when we receive the visitors from Open Doors, it is so helpful,” the family said in a statement distributed by Open Doors.
Surviving family members have participated in trauma counseling and received some financial support and food from Open Doors workers in the region. “Although we cannot be there all the time with our persecuted brothers and sisters, we are attending to them by phone, getting them involved in activities and trainings that we know will help them in the healing process.”
Faith in Christ reportedly helps the family, whose exact location was not revealed amid security concerns. Yet, “It is not easy to be hopeful, in a place where the daily bread is death, and Christians are the target of violence and ersecutions, because they are the only ones who do not accept the threats and pressures of the rebel groups,” acknowledged a family member.
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