Colombia: Threats Drive Pastor from Ministry in Medellin

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

BOGOTA, June 30 (Compass Direct News) -- A series of death threats against a pastor in a working-class Medellín neighborhood prompted him to abandon his home and ministry last month and flee with his family to Colombia's capital.

For three years, 31-year-old Wilmer Ribón pastored Rios de Agua Viva (Rivers of Living Water), a church in Belén Rincón, a paramilitary-controlled neighborhood with many displaced persons and high violent crime rate. During his tenure as pastor, Ribón had launched several public outreach programs, including a sports club and a project that offered food, medical and economic help to the needy.

In 2006 Ribón began half-hour weekly evangelistic impactos – playing Christian music on sidewalks and preaching brief, uplifting messages of God’s love. His last such evangelistic outreach took place during Holy Week, when a two-month series of death threats began.

At 8:30 p.m. on March 19, Holy Wednesday, Wilmer’s wife Beatríz Bermúdez answered the family’s home phone. A male voice asked her whether this was the house of “the fat pastor of Belén Rincón.” When she responded that it was, the man said, “Tell the little pastor to stop brainwashing people in the neighborhood, to quit preaching to people, that he’ll stay healthy.”

The phone rang five minutes later. Bermúdez answered. The same voice repeated the threat, adding that Ribón is “free to do whatever he wants in his church, but outside he should be quiet, if he doesn’t want something to happen to him.”

She phoned her husband about the calls. When Ribón arrived home, he learned that the caretaker of his church had also received a threatening call demanding that the pastor stop preaching in the neighborhood.

Ribón brought the concern as a prayer request to his church’s leadership board, which decided to stop the evangelistic outreaches until neighborhood tensions cooled.

But word spread on the street about the threats against Ribón, who then worried that an informant was among his church’s leadership. On May 29, paramilitaries who control the neighborhood asked him whether he had indeed received threatening calls. Ribón said that was true.

The paramilitaries told him not to worry, as they were not behind the threats, but offered to find out who was.

“I told them immediately not to do that, to leave everything alone,” Ribón said.

But the paramilitaries told him that they must find out who was responsible for the threats, because it bothered them that somebody in the neighborhood was acting outside their control.

A few days later, someone called him.

“Sir, I remind you that I only wanted you to stop preaching the Bible in the streets and stop brainwashing people,” the unknown caller said, “but you ratted on me and told the paras, and now they’re looking to get me, so I warn you that if something happens to me, something will happen to you as well.”

Ribón grew so fearful that he wound up twice in an emergency room with strong chest pains. He tried to file a police report, but officers required him to reveal who was behind the threats. Ribón had no idea who was threatening him.

“I waited on the Lord and tried to be prudent in my movements,” he said.

On May 3, the same man phoned him to demand he meet him in San Antonio Park in downtown Medellín but warned him against bringing police, paramilitaries “or “anyone else, that he and I alone would talk,” Ribón said.

But Ribón told a policeman about the planned meeting in the downtown park. When the man didn’t call back to make contact, Ribón called his wife to pick him up, along with his sister-in-law. He asked the policeman to escort them home, but the officer said he was unable. No other police were available.

The next day, the man called Ribón and described Ribón’s interaction with the police in the park the previous night. The man repeated the threats. “This worried my family even more, and we began to think of leaving the city,” Ribón said.

On the night of May 8, Ribón was leaving a health clinic in downtown Medellín when two armed men on a motorcycle told him they were cousins of the man who was calling him.

“They [said they] only wanted to warn me that if anything happened to their cousin, something would also happen to my children, that I shouldn’t say anything to the paras, that I had ratted on him and now the paras had made him leave the neighborhood and he had lost his family,” Ribón said.

When Ribón returned home, the couple decided to abandon their home and flee Medellín the next day.

A Christian worker in Colombia said this type of “expulsion” is occurring in other parts of Colombia due to renewed paramilitary efforts to regain from rebel guerrillas control of areas paramilitaries had abandoned.

“Pastors are always targeted by these groups because pastors preach about peace, which does not suit these groups,” the worker said.

Ribón grieves over leaving his life and ministry behind. That he fled in the face of threats deeply disturbs him – even though people commonly get killed in Belén Rincón. The week he left, a well-known resident in the neighborhood was shot in a corner fast-food restaurant near the church.

Not long afterward, two judges were assassinated in broad daylight.

“We have to trust in the Lord,” Ribón said. Even so, he added, “A threat comes and I leave. But the Lord also calls us to be prudent, and I believe anybody in my situation would have done the same thing.”

Ribón and his family now live in a cold, windowless half-finished warehouse they share with another family.

Copyright © 2008 Compass Direct News