Jaime Tenorio, a Christian farmer, was part of the indigenous Nasa people group living in Colombia’s western coastal department of Cauca. In Sept. 2010, local council leaders stole the family’s acreage and imprisoned Tenorio, his wife and four children in their home by wrapping it with barbed wire. In April 2011, the council sentenced Tenorio to 20 years in prison because he opposed traditional ancestral beliefs that run counter to Christianity. The family was one of 19 Christian families held under similar house arrest and expelled from their lands.
Tenorio’s case is not unusual for Christians in Colombia’s indigenous communities, where persecution is an all-to-normal reality. The state offers little support to indigenous believers who lose lands, homes, property, freedom, and even their lives, because of their faith.
Open Doors has reported abuses against indigenous believers to Colombian state authorities, but each time, as state agencies seek to corroborate the information, tribal authorities deny the charges. Authorities argue that when members of the indigenous community renounce traditional religious beliefs and embrace Christ, they forfeit their ethnic identities. Since indigenous councils are autonomous, and therefore not accountable to the Colombian government, tribal Christians are left to suffer without recourse.
This situation prompted Open Doors to organize the “Autonomy and indigenous justice: License to violate human rights?” forum in the nation’s Congress building in Bogota. The Oct. 22 forum addressed freedom of conscience issues, raising national awareness by exposing difficulties that indigenous Christians suffer for giving up their ancestral religious beliefs to follow Christ.
The forum examined measures to promote the peaceful coexistence of indigenous people groups and Christians within them. Among issues highlighted were indigenous leaders’ forcing Christians within their communities to renounce Christianity before receiving their constitutionally guaranteed rights to healthcare, work and education.
Common forms of persecution include expulsion from their lands, confiscation of homes, farms and animals; denial of employment, education and medical attention; and exclusion from government grants for indigenous community development projects.
Christian Congressman, Edgar Espindola, told the forum that subversive groups have violated the rights of Christians in Colombia’s indigenous communities by forcing them into displacement at gunpoint, “simply because they exercise their freedom of conscience… to follow a different faith,” he said.
“The state has the obligation to accompany each Colombian and protect their constitutionally enshrined rights,” Espindola said. “Freedom of conscience is one of these rights.”
Forum participants denounced Colombia’s legal vacuum regarding indigenous law. Because Colombia’s constitution considers indigenous groups autonomous on their own tribal lands, allowing governing councils to exercise authority and dictate sentences according their own rules, they are exempt from abiding by national laws.
This autonomy enables tribal councils to deny indigenous Christians their basic rights, including religious freedom. Juan Carlos Gil, a Kogui pastor, said that indigenous believers want freedom within their territories. He emphasized the desire of indigenous Christians to be included in decisions that impact their communities.
Arhuaca indigenous authorities displaced Elizabeth Torres from her land in 2009 because of her Christian faith. Arhuaca authorities also placed her under house arrest with her parents for 15 days, charging her father with rebellion for refusing to subject himself to indigenous authorities because he adheres to a non-traditional religion.
“The authorities told us that we come from a different country, simply because we have other beliefs,” Torres said. She said that some elected officials, who are aware of this situation, have refused to visit the community and investigate their plight. “We are living under difficult situations. There are children who go to sleep without dinner. The community has turned its back on us.”
Ferney Tenorio, son of Jaime Tenorio, now lives and studies with his two brothers in the Open Doors Children’s Home while his father serves a 20-year sentence for refusing to worship the traditional gods of his tribe. “I trust that my dad will not have to serve the rest of this sentence,” he said.
Representatives from the Nasa, Arhuaca, Kogui, Kankuamo, Wiwa and Embera indigenous groups shared experiences during the forum about the tribal authorities’ persecution, and the trials they’ve endured for their faith. Open Doors presented documented cases of faith-based persecution of Christians in three of Colombia’s more than 80 indigenous communities over the past five years: five have been killed for their faith; two have been wrongly sentenced to 20-year prison terms, with more than 50 temporarily imprisoned; and some 100 families have been forced from their homes without compensation.
The homes of 35 indigenous Christian families have been destroyed by arson, while 73 indigenous Christian teachers have been denied their pay for not teaching students about tribal witchcraft and sorcery beliefs. In addition, these teachers refused to force students to deny Christ.
The 250 people who attended included representatives of the ombudsman, attorney general, and victim assistance offices. The director of the government’s Indigenous Issues Office was also present during part of the forum. Open Doors considers this forum an essential first step in uniting human rights defenders throughout Colombia and raising awareness of religious freedom violations in indigenous communities.
Father God, we thank you for the opportunity to bring to light the injustices on indigenous communities in Colombia. We pray that this door that has been opened will be the first step in providing relief and justice to Your flock. And for those who lost their homes, and for those who are in prison, and for those who have been displaced, we pray that any favorable outcome will be done without bloodshed; and instead is filled with the peace of Jesus. Bring forgiveness and restoration to these communities so that those who do not yet know You will be drawn to You because of Your grace evident in the lives of the believers living there. In the name of Jesus who has overcome the world. Amen