15-Year-Old Jonatan: “Where I Am From, No One Can Live as a Christian”
In Colombia, child believers are at risk of banishment and arrest from their own communities governed by tribal law.
There’s a spiritual darkness along the scenic Caribbean coast of Colombia (#50 on the World Watch List).
In the Sierra Nevada mountains of Santa Marta live multiple indigenous people groups, each with their own language and customs. Yet they are united in one key way: they all persecute and drive out anyone who claims the name of Christ. Over the last decade, there has been a significant increase of violent incidents against indigenous Christians, even children. This has resulted in many Christians fleeing their villages looking for a place to live and worship in peace. A few months ago, we had the privilege of meeting brothers Jonathan* and Samuel.*
It’s 5:00 a.m. at the Casita. Today the oppressive heat has been replaced with a comfortable morning breeze that greets the locals as they wake.
Although it’s early, 15 indigenous children have already begun their daily chores. Some spend time in morning prayers, others help prepare breakfast, and the smallest ones get dressed and prepare for school. These 15 children are a makeshift family of refugees. They are the children of the persecuted church.
As persecution has increased in the indigenous regions of Colombia, Open Doors has established safe spaces for children to call home. Called the Casita by the children, the shelter provides an opportunity for children and youth to study and demonstrate their faith freely.
The Goal: Freely Practicing Their Belief
Before, these children attended their village school where they were taught their peoples’ animist religion–education designed to preserve tradition and prohibit “new religions” such as Christianity. They learned about shamanism and enchantments under the main authority of the village known as a Mamo, or witch. Any parents who refused to enforce this religion could be penalized with loss of land and even physical torture. For these reasons, indigenous Christian families often travel great distances to practice their faith freely.
This is how two brothers, 15-year-old Jonatan* and 14-year-old Samuel,* came to the Casita.
“Where I am from, no one can live as a Christian, nor can they read the Bible because it has been forbidden,” Jonatan explains. “My father, though he is not a believer, gave me permission to come to the Casita and learn more about God.”
Jonatan and Samuel grew up in the Arhuacos community in Colombia, and Jonatan proudly wears his traditional Arhuacos clothing. Jonatan and Samuel often teach their friends their native language.
“Our clothing, language and culture are important,” explains Jonatan. “These things identify us and are part of who we are.”
Watching Quiet Faith
With measured expressions and few words, Jonatan has learned to cultivate the earth. His arms have the marks of a hard, indigenous life. Jonatan and Samuel’s mother is a Christian and from a young age the boys observed the quiet faith of their mother: how she kept her beliefs from the authorities out of fear of retaliation. Seeing his mother’s faith motivated Jonatan to seek out a place where he might freely live out his faith.
At the Casita, the children attend school in the morning and work with tutors in the afternoons. Each day, they share “family time,” during which they sing worship songs in Spanish and indigenous languages. They also spend time in devotions. The children miss their families, but in the Casita they have found a huge and loving family. They are allowed to practice their faith freely, while preparing for the future. Jonatan dreams of becoming an engineer and helping his community.
Samuel dreams of becoming a mayor and hopes to reach the neediest people. “The thing I like most about the Casita is the opportunity I have to read the Bible and understand it,” Samuel shared. “The tutors help me to understand things I did not understand before!”
Prohibiting Christianity: Tribal Law and Silent Government
Colombia’s complicated relationship with religious freedom landed it at #50 on Open Doors’ World Watch List. Tribes like the Arhuaco people justify their exclusionary policies through the constitution of Colombia, which provides religious autonomy as a right for all indigenous people.
These tribal communities administer their own justice according to their cultural norms, and since the government is required to respect their internal decisions, it remains silent on the issue of Christian persecution. Often, this prohibition against Christianity is so radical and violent that those who disobey face torture and imprisonment.
Conversion in many of these villages is dangerous. Samuel and Jonatan believe their father has wanted to convert for a long time, but has chosen not to out of fear of authorities. If the village learned of his conversion, their dad would likely be banished from his home or even arrested, leaving his family vulnerable. In recent months, this has happened with several parents of children living at the Casita, effectively making them orphans.
Because of this, these child and youth refugees have become a family at the Casita.
Please prayerfully consider if God may be calling you to become a Frontline Partner whose monthly support goes to provide for persecution victims like Jonatan and Samuel.
*Names changed for security reasons