Latin America’s longest war has now dragged on for more than five decades. To an observer flying over this beautiful country, Colombia initially appears to be peaceful and quiet. The country’s diverse geography and ecology seems to coexist in perfect harmony. The impressive mountains transition into green plains and jungle that stretches as far as the eye can see. Big cities sprawl out over hundreds of miles.
However, the illusion of harmony is gone and anxiety takes over the harsh reality many face here. For decades, a civil war has raged on and every Colombian suffers from the complex battle between the government and illegal armed groups. More than 5 million people have been displaced in the last 50 years. Thousands have been killed. Even now, a third of the country is controlled by illegal armed groups. Those who live in these regions, and dare to challenge the rules of the guerrillas, are treated as enemies. Christians often find themselves in this position. Because the message of the gospel is always in conflict with the practices of the illegal armed groups, Christians are persecuted.
“You have to stop preaching and holding church services. If you continue to preach, we will kill you.”
This is a clear message from a FARC commander to a pastor in a region called Guaviare. The FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the largest illegal armed group in Colombia, has been fighting against the Colombian government since 1964. One of the ways the FARC maintains power is by imposing their own rules on the local people. In April 2014, twelve churches were closed by the FARC. In 2009, Pastor Manuel Camacho was shot by guerrilla fighters because he refused to stop preaching the gospel.
Christians like Pastor Manuel are found everywhere in Colombia—brave men, women and children who live out a dangerous faith. Why is their faith dangerous? Because they made the decision to follow Jesus, the one who brings real peace —a peace that many Colombians have not experienced amidst the ongoing war. For Christians, the rules are simple: obey every order the guerrillas give you and stop preaching or evangelizing. But for many Christians, that is not an option. They bravely live out their conviction that Jesus is the only hope for their country and that everyone needs to hear about Him.
Though many Colombian Christians suffer, those in leadership positions are at greatest risk. Pastors and church leaders know that at any moment they might be questioned, displaced or even killed for their faith. That knowledge, however, is not keeping them from spreading the gospel.
Open Doors understands the complexity of the situation for the Colombian church. Pastors who live in rural areas frequently travel to isolated villages to bring Bibles and Christian literature to all who want to know more about Jesus. Open Doors supports them with biblical training and Christian literature. For many Christians, the consequences of the war still impact their daily lives. Those families who were forced by guerrillas to move now have to start all over in a new place. Income generating projects sponsored by Open Doors are a great help for displaced and hurting families who have experienced trauma and lost their income.
Another project of Open Doors is a safe house for children and teenagers who cannot live at home due to persecution. The children living in the Children’s Center often come from the countryside and areas controlled by the FARC and other groups. Children of pastors are the most vulnerable and are at great risk of being kidnapped by the fighters. “When I lived at home, I was so worried,” says 18-year-old David, a student at the Children’s Center. “I know my father goes to dangerous places, and he was worried about me and my sister living in our town because it’s not safe there.” After his father was threatened for preaching the gospel, David and his sister came to live in the Children’s Center. Andres, leader of the Children’s Center, explains why the center is a help for the persecuted church in Colombia. “The Children’s Center is like a long-term answer for the church. The Children’s Center also provides rest to parents.”
“For me, the Children’s Center is like a second family,” says David’s father. “They feel good here. We as parents also feel more at ease because we know that our children are in a safe place where they can study and grow.”
Despite severe persecution and ongoing threats, the kingdom of God is advancing—even among guerrilla fighters. The life of former guerrilla Sebastian is an encouraging example of how God works in the hearts of bitter and broken people. Sebastian, who used to be a guerrilla and a persecutor of the church, became a Christian after God called him and changed his life. He decided to continue living in the same region and spread the gospel. “One night, I was preaching when some guerrillas came to me,” he shared. “They took me and wanted to kill me because I was preaching. But those who wanted to take my life said they made a mistake and I ended up leaving alive.”
Next week, in Part 2, Sebastian shares his powerful testimony of his transformation from a persecutor of Christians to a faithful believer.
Father, we thank You for the faithful testimonies of the many Christians in Colombia who have remained faithful despite the consequences. We pray for Your protection over them, and that You will provide food and shelter where they have been cast out of their villages. We thank You for the Children’s Center that provides a safe haven for Christian children who are at risk. And, we thank You for the zeal of Your people for the gospel to be spread forth in their nation. We pray for courage to stand strong in their faith and for protection from persecution. We pray that the power of the FARC and other groups will be diminished, and that the gospel of Christ will move across the land in great might. In the Name of Jesus, at whose name “every knee [shall] bow … and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Amen.