Rebels Force Churches To Close in Colombia

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia, May 15 (Compass) -- In mid April, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) forced 11 evangelical Protestant churches in Arauquita, a town near Colombia's border with Venezuela, to suspend public worship services.

According to a report published in the Bogota newspaper "El Tiempo," some 2000 Christians are affected by the closures. Many of them are presently meeting in private homes for prayer and Bible study.

Church leaders say commanders of the Tenth Front of the FARC ordered pastors in Arauquita to close their churches because, they allege, evangelical Christians support presidential candidate Alvaro Uribe Velez.

Colombia will hold presidential elections on May 26. At press time, Mr. Uribe was leading the polls, followed by moderate candidate Horacio Serpa. Uribe, a conservative, has said that, if elected, he will escalate military action against the guerrillas.

"There appears to be some confusion of a political nature here," Rev. Juan Carlos Monsalve of the Worldwide Missionary Movement church, told "El Tiempo." "The FARC heard rumors that we are supporting Alvaro Uribe, but we are not interested in politics. We would never take up arms to defend ourselves, because we are armed with the Word of God."

Although the churches were closed in mid April, the incident did not come to the attention of local authorities until May 8. That day, Hidalí Carreño* Chávez, municipal ombudsman of Arauquita in charge of monitoring human rights violations, received the first complaint regarding FARC pressure on local churches.

Carreño condemned the threats against the evangelicals and categorized the FARC action as a violation of religious freedom.

This is not the first time Marxist guerrillas have shut down churches, says Ricardo Esquivia, director of the Human Rights and Peace Commission of the Evangelical Council of Colombia (CEDECOL). According to CEDECOL estimates, some 400 evangelical congregations -- most of them in small towns and rural areas -- have had to close their doors since the onset of Colombia's unremitting civil warfare.

In some cases, like Arauquita, guerrilla groups charge Christian churches with carrying on "anti-revolutionary activities" and use that pretext for forcing them to close. In other instances, intense combat between the rebels, the army and paramilitary units has forced pastors to suspend worship services in ensure the safety of congregational members.

Esquivia told Compass that, on June 4, CEDECOL representatives will travel to the department (state) of Arauca, where Arauquita is located, to discuss the situation with leaders of the evangelical churches there. He is hopeful that a meeting with FARC commanders can also be arranged, in order to negotiate an end to the ban on public worship.

Negotiating with guerrillas is a risky business. In April, guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN) abducted Father Teodoro Gonzalez, parish priest of the Roman Catholic Church in Arauquita, and Father Saulo Carreño* of Saravena. The two priests were attempting to visit hostages held by the guerrillas when they were kidnapped. At press time, Gonzalez and Carreño remain captives of the ELN.

The CEDECOL Human Rights Commission has experience in negotiations with guerrilla groups, achieving some limited success.

"We've held talks with insurgents in Bolivar, Chocó and other areas of the country," Esquivia said. "We try to make them understand that Christians are neutral in this conflict, and therefore they should allow our churches to operate freely."

"On the other hand, we have also encouraged pastors to open their churches to the community, to get involved in social ministries. One of the criticisms the guerrillas level against evangelical churches is that we are not involved enough in social causes."

Last year, CEDECOL leaders met with FARC leadership in San Vicente de Caguán, capital of the "de-militarized zone" the rebels controlled at that time. At the meeting, guerrilla chiefs promised to respect the religious rights of evangelical Christians. The FARC Tenth Front apparently is not honoring that agreement.

Esquivia said most of the congregations in Arauquita affected by the closures belong to the Worldwide Missionary Movement, the Four Square Church, the Pentecostal Church and the Christian Union Movement.