Marxist guerrillas and paramilitary groups have sustained a 47-year conflict with government troops in Colombia, centering their operations in the remote regions of Colombia riddled with drug-trafficking routes. Pastors in Colombia’s rural Northern provinces told Open Doors workers last month that the children in their church families, especially those between the ages of 6 and 18, are facing growing risks of recruitment into the ranks of the paramilitary groups and guerrilla movements, some by force, others through enticing incentives such as monthly sums of money. These rebel recruitment pressures are particularly severe in the Cordoba and Santander provinces.
No exact recruitment statistics exist, but ombudsman Volmar Perez estimates that according to current reports by non-governmental institutions based on the United Nations’ data reporting 8,000 under-age youth recruited to rebel ranks during 2009, the number this past year would have jumped to 11,000 youths. On the positive side, the government’s Family Welfare institution recorded 328 who left rebel groups in the first half of this year, 80 per cent of them boys and the other 15 per cent girls.
Many of the youth recruited are Christians, so how is this happening? Churches in Colombia have sustained many violent attacks this year, but of more to concern to Rogelio Quintero,* leader of a church in Cordoba province, is the lack of biblical and vocational training for the church’s children under serious risk of joining the rebel groups. Celso Rojas,*another Cordoba pastor, said men from the rebel Los Paisas group recently came into the town of El Palmar, announcing that young people were forbidden to go to church, play soccer or walk around the streets at restricted times. If any youths disobeyed them, the rebels warned, they would be taken away to fight in their group. The paramilitaries also tried to persuade the youth to join their group by offering them a monthly payment of $590. Thankfully the church youth rejected their offer, but not all the children and teenagers say “no.”
In Montelibano, a city of Cordoba, Pastor Atanacio Marquez said that under persistent appeals from the rebels, some of the young people joined them voluntarily, particularly with the paramilitaries. “I am concerned for the members of my church,” the pastor explained. “Most of them have many relatives involved in these rebel groups. And they have children who are at the recruitment age. In the last case, children are many times taken forcibly. The youth don’t see anything bad in it, and think they should be allowed to go and fight in these groups.” They are enticed by offering money to go work on a farm or take care of farm machinery, etc.
The churches along the northern Colombian coast are facing some of the worst problems, since the sea provides a strategic location for drug trafficking. The various rebel groups in the region fight between themselves to possess lands for producing and processing drugs, and then transport them by ship to market them. But local pastors dare not teach freely or even talk openly against this evil business. So it is difficult to disciple Christian youth about how to respond as followers of Christ when they are invited to join rebel groups.
Christian youths who live near the Venezuelan border are sometimes recruited to take up arms and fight under force in exchange for money. Still others are recruited to work as spies. Instead of wearing a military uniform and openly admitting they belong to a rebel group, these youths inform the rebel group, warning them whenever the Colombian army or another rival rebel group comes into the region.
In such a power war, it is risky business to negotiate with the rebels by claiming Christian values. Sometimes rebels force families to claim them as their relatives, by telling searching army soldiers that they are not rebels, but family members. Rebels in the Meta area closed down three churches in August, threatening to take the children of the believers into their ranks.
Entire families are asking for urgent support to send their children out to safe places such as Open Doors’ Children’s Center where they enjoy the privilege of education and training in the Word of God.
Lord of Heaven and Earth, we lift up these young people in Colombia as they are tempted and forced to join rebel military groups. We pray for safety from kidnapping and strength to withstand temptation. And we pray wisdom, discernment and courage for Christian adults as they seek opportunities to disciple the young people to walk in Your way. Thank You for the youth who have stood firm in the face of temptation and fear. And thank You for Open Doors’ Children’s Center where children are encouraged to follow Christ and equipped to serve Him well.
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