Colombian Church Endures in War-torn Choco

Wednesday, August 4, 2004

by Deann Alford

AUSTIN, Texas, April 12 (Compass) -- Fighting between paramilitaries and guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Chocó, Colombia, abated during Holy Week. But war-weary Christians there know they cannot count on even a few days of peace in this hostile department (state) near the border with Panama.

Beginning in October, a wave of conflict in three Chocó villages has forced about 550 people from their homes. Many of them are Christians. The United Nations ranks Colombia’s three million displaced as the world’s second-highest population of internal refugees after Sudan’s, which is estimated at between 3.7 million and 4.5 million.

In the vast northern Chocó jungle, FARC guerrillas held three New Tribes Mission workers hostage from 1993 until they were apparently murdered three years later.

The Chocó-based indigenous group OREWA has called on illegal armed groups to respect the lives, honor, lands and other property of those living in this war-torn department of 400,000. The people are predominantly black; 75 percent of residents live below the poverty line, making Chocó Colombia’s poorest department. Much of Chocó is accessible only by river.

An OREWA communiqué detailed the presence of FARC guerrillas in the indigenous villages of Egoróquera, Union Baquiaza and Playita, and the corresponding armed response of paramilitaries. The military began controlling the river transit of goods and products that villagers produced, but it did not control the illegal armed groups’ actions in the zone. Like many parts of Colombia which have no institutional government presence, the state has done little to protect these communities.

Asdreubal Manzo is president of the Association of Evangelical Ministers of Chocó and pastor of Emmanuel Church, a congregation of 230 in the capital city of Quibdó. Quibdó lists its population at 100,000, a figure that does not count the displaced. No one knows how many displaced people are in the squatter communities that have sprung up on the outskirts of the city.

No one knows either how many Christians in Colombia have been displaced in the four-decade-long civil war. Manzo said that of the 35 families in his church, about a third of them are displaced. They have fled their homes and lands and come to the city seeking a better life.

But like most cities in Colombia, unemployment remains high in Quibdó. Manzo says that churches are doing what they can to teach job skills to those who are unskilled for living in the city. It’s not easy. The church has few resources for such a daunting task. Approximately 12 evangelical denominations and the Roman Catholic Church have a presence in Quibdó and in the Choc department.

While the church seeks to mediate peace with the warring factions, war has changed the social fabric of this region forever. “They’re practically resigned” to abandoning their lands and living in the city, Manzo said. “Insecurity is great.”

Most of the displaced believe safety can be found in numbers, by living in a city rather than in sparsely populated rural areas where they are more vulnerable to attack. In some communities where fighting is hot, Christians are targeted, Manzo says. The army and guerrilla factions each accuse believers of being allied with the rival group.

“That’s where Christians suffer abuse because (the groups in conflict) believe they’re accomplices of one or the other,” he said.

Manzo said the church holds strong to its non-violence convictions. “It’s part of the persecution that the church must endure,” Manzo said, “preparing each believer to remain stronger in the faith. Amid all this, (we strive) to prepare the church and leaders and to keep ourselves faithful to the Lord.”

The 46-year-old pastor came to Christ as a young man through the work of a North American missionary. The area where Manzo grew up is now a battlefield. The missionary and her fellow foreign Christian workers left years ago when they became likely targets in the armed conflict.

“I remember with nostalgia what they did,” Manzo said, adding that he has seen some dreams realized for his city. The international community, including the Red Cross, has sent help. A medical doctor with the ministry Christ For The City International recently joined another physician working in Chocó with another Christian non-profit agency. Life remains difficult in Quibdó, but God provides.

“How good that we’re one in the body of Christ,” Manzo said. “We appreciate your prayers."