Worthy Christian News » Christian Persecution » Christian Persecution - Americas » Colombian Church Endures in War-torn Choco
by Deann Alford
AUSTIN, Texas, April 12 (Compass) -- Fighting between paramilitaries and guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in ChocÃ³, Colombia, abated during Holy Week. But war-weary Christians there know they cannot count on even a few days of peace in this hostile department (state) near the border with Panama.
Beginning in October, a wave of conflict in three ChocÃ³ villages has forced about 550 people from their homes. Many of them are Christians. The United Nations ranks Colombiaâ€™s three million displaced as the worldâ€™s second-highest population of internal refugees after Sudanâ€™s, which is estimated at between 3.7 million and 4.5 million.
In the vast northern ChocÃ³ jungle, FARC guerrillas held three New Tribes Mission workers hostage from 1993 until they were apparently murdered three years later.
The ChocÃ³-based indigenous group OREWA has called on illegal armed groups to respect the lives, honor, lands and other property of those living in this war-torn department of 400,000. The people are predominantly black; 75 percent of residents live below the poverty line, making ChocÃ³ Colombiaâ€™s poorest department. Much of ChocÃ³ is accessible only by river.
An OREWA communiquÃ© detailed the presence of FARC guerrillas in the indigenous villages of EgorÃ³quera, Union Baquiaza and Playita, and the corresponding armed response of paramilitaries. The military began controlling the river transit of goods and products that villagers produced, but it did not control the illegal armed groupsâ€™ actions in the zone. Like many parts of Colombia which have no institutional government presence, the state has done little to protect these communities.
Asdreubal Manzo is president of the Association of Evangelical Ministers of ChocÃ³ and pastor of Emmanuel Church, a congregation of 230 in the capital city of QuibdÃ³. QuibdÃ³ lists its population at 100,000, a figure that does not count the displaced. No one knows how many displaced people are in the squatter communities that have sprung up on the outskirts of the city.
No one knows either how many Christians in Colombia have been displaced in the four-decade-long civil war. Manzo said that of the 35 families in his church, about a third of them are displaced. They have fled their homes and lands and come to the city seeking a better life.
But like most cities in Colombia, unemployment remains high in QuibdÃ³. Manzo says that churches are doing what they can to teach job skills to those who are unskilled for living in the city. Itâ€™s not easy. The church has few resources for such a daunting task. Approximately 12 evangelical denominations and the Roman Catholic Church have a presence in QuibdÃ³ and in the Choc department.
While the church seeks to mediate peace with the warring factions, war has changed the social fabric of this region forever. â€œTheyâ€™re practically resignedâ€ to abandoning their lands and living in the city, Manzo said. â€œInsecurity is great.â€
Most of the displaced believe safety can be found in numbers, by living in a city rather than in sparsely populated rural areas where they are more vulnerable to attack. In some communities where fighting is hot, Christians are targeted, Manzo says. The army and guerrilla factions each accuse believers of being allied with the rival group.
â€œThatâ€™s where Christians suffer abuse because (the groups in conflict) believe theyâ€™re accomplices of one or the other,â€ he said.
Manzo said the church holds strong to its non-violence convictions. â€œItâ€™s part of the persecution that the church must endure,â€ Manzo said, â€œpreparing each believer to remain stronger in the faith. Amid all this, (we strive) to prepare the church and leaders and to keep ourselves faithful to the Lord.â€
The 46-year-old pastor came to Christ as a young man through the work of a North American missionary. The area where Manzo grew up is now a battlefield. The missionary and her fellow foreign Christian workers left years ago when they became likely targets in the armed conflict.
â€œI remember with nostalgia what they did,â€ Manzo said, adding that he has seen some dreams realized for his city. The international community, including the Red Cross, has sent help. A medical doctor with the ministry Christ For The City International recently joined another physician working in ChocÃ³ with another Christian non-profit agency. Life remains difficult in QuibdÃ³, but God provides.
â€œHow good that weâ€™re one in the body of Christ,â€ Manzo said. â€œWe appreciate your prayers."