June 27, 2001
(COMPASS) -- In the past two weeks, the civil war in Colombia has claimed the lives of two adult children of evangelical ministers. Church leaders say the deaths may indicate a sinister policy trend among guerrilla groups and paramilitary units to eliminate successful Christian evangelists, especially those attracting youth to Christ.
On June 8, Ederino RenterÃa, pastor of the evangelical Inter-American Church, and his wife, Amparo, discovered the partially decomposed body of their son Antonio, 22. The last week of May, an unidentified group of heavily armed terrorists abducted Antonio from the RenterÃa home in Fraguas, Antioquia. The kidnappers killed him sometime the following week and interred his body in an unmarked grave. The family received an anonymous tip that led them to the crime scene.
Fraguas, an isolated farm community 100 miles northeast of MedellÃn, is located between the towns of Segovia and Faragosa. Marxist guerrillas of the Army of National Liberation (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are fighting paramilitary units of the United Auto-Defenses of Colombia (AUC) for control of the area. It is unclear which of the armed groups is responsible for Antonio RenterÃa's murder.
"We are unable to determine which armed group it was, because they all closely resemble one another," said Julio CÃ©sar Cabrera, president of the Association of Inter-American Churches. "They all dress alike and display the same aggressiveness. To find out who did it will be difficult because this is a rural area where all the actors in the conflict operate."
On the other hand, Cabrera thinks the murder might well be a result of the significant growth of Ederino RenterÃa's congregation. Over half of the 450 inhabitants of Fraguas are members of the Inter-American Church there. Warring factions have learned that evangelical converts typically renounce violence. That makes it difficult for terrorists to attract recruits to their respective armies.
"Frankly, at this time it would be questionable to say that this represents direct persecution of the faith," Cabrera told Compass by telephone from his home in MedellÃn. "However, the church that is in the middle of the conflict is being persecuted because of the evangelistic role it is playing. Every person who hears a presentation of the gospel and is brought to the feet of Jesus lays down their weapons. Therefore, (armed groups) consider the church a real enemy to the cause, especially leftist groups."
The RenterÃa family notified Cabrera of Antonio's death last week and asked for bereavement leave from their pastorate.
On Sunday, June 17, Cabrera received another tragic call from Nueva ColonÃa, a town in the UrabÃ¡ region. Twenty-year-old Joni Palacio, an active youth worker and daughter of Inter-American Church representative Francisca Palacio, was shot and killed at 5 p.m. that day.
As in the RenterÃa case, no one claimed responsibility for the murder of Miss Palacio.
"We are unaware of the motives for the homicide," Cabrera said, "but it was also carried out against a Christian family that toils in the propagation of the gospel."
The Inter-American Church of Colombia, one of the country's oldest Protestant denominations, was founded in the mid-20th century by North American missionaries of OMS International. From its base in MedellÃn, the denomination has expanded throughout the country, planting 245 local churches. Many of these are located in dangerous areas, such as the torrid UrabÃ¡ region, scene of some of the bloodiest fighting in the long civil war.
Consequently, a number of Inter-American Church leaders have died in the conflict. On Easter weekend, 2000, Jorge Aldana, 28, was murdered in Nueva Antioquia, UrabÃ¡, presumably by left-wing terrorists. A member of the civic board in his community and a respected youth minister in the region, Aldana incurred the ire of the insurgents for refusing to help recruit young people to guerrilla ranks. (See Compass Direct, May 19, 2000: "Christian Leaders Marked for Assassination.")
On January 30 of this year, Emiro Gordon, national vice-president of the Inter-American Church, survived an assassination attempt in MedellÃn that left him paralyzed. Two months later, MedellÃn pastor Liberman Alazate received a bullet wound in the neck in another unsuccessful assassination attempt.
The escalating violence has prompted Cabrera, a practicing attorney and pastor of the Filadelfia Inter-American church, to alert fellow ministers to watch their backs.
"I am giving warnings to Inter-American ministers as well as those of other denominations," Cabrera said.
"Many paramilitary groups, as well as the guerrillas, are feigning conversion. These people are infiltrating the inner core of churches, looking for -- I don't know -- information of some kind. I see that as very dangerous and I've alerted ministers to take maximum precaution against these kinds of risks."
Copyright Â© 2001 Compass Direct News Service. Used with permission.