Kidnapped Pastor Freed In Colombia

Saturday, August 10, 2002

by Deann Alford

AUSTIN, Texas, May 16 (Compass) -- Guerrillas snatched Juan Carlos Villegas on his way back from a baptismal service near Medellin, Colombia, on April 28. A few days later, they sent a demand to Family Christian Church: hand over $25,000 or their assistant pastor would be killed.

On May 9, Family Christian's head pastor gave the rebel National Liberation Army's (ELN) "Commander Alex" a Bible in exchange for the hostage they'd kept for 12 days. "There was no need to pay a peso for my freedom," Villegas told Compass.

On Sunday, April 28, a busload of believers left Family Christian Church in Medellin's Bello Antiochia suburb to attend a service at a church member's ranch in Barbosa, a village 24 miles away. Villegas, 26, drove the church's pickup truck in a convoy to the ranch, where he helped baptize 50 people in a stream. The bus left the ranch at 3:30 p.m. Villegas and 10 church members boarded the truck to leave 30 minutes later.

A few yards down the unpaved road, Villegas came upon another vehicle. Five guerrillas armed with machine guns jumped out of their vehicle and forced the pickup's passengers to get out. They told Villegas and church elder Nelson Gutierrez to get back in the truck. Three guerrillas got in the truck with the two men and told Villegas to drive, leaving the other church members behind.

When the road ended, they continued on foot up a mountain for an hour until the guerrillas, with Villegas and Gutierrez, came upon more people. "That was where they identified themselves as part of the ELN," Villegas said.

They asked Villegas who he and Gutierrez were. "When I told them that I was a pastor, they kept me as a hostage but decided to free my disciple," he said of Gutierrez, a textile factory worker. Gutierrez had brought his Bible from the truck. Before leaving, he gave it to Villegas.

Six guerrillas continued farther up the mountain with Villegas until 8 p.m. when they arrived at a camp with eight more guerrillas. "We want to use you to get ransom," a guerrilla told him. "If we run into the army or paramilitaries, the first one we'll kill is you."

"I was terrified -- really praying, doing spiritual warfare, rebuking all spirits of death," Villegas said.

But Villegas also said that the guerrillas were interested in what he had to say. He spoke about his faith, and only one refused to listen. "Sometimes when I was reading the Bible to myself, they would ask me to read aloud so that they could all hear," he said. He read to the guerrillas long passages from the Bible, including many from the four Gospels.

For 12 days he marched on the mountains, often in rain, in the same drenched clothing he had worn to the baptism. He was never allowed to bathe. The guerrillas brought him a toothbrush his eighth day in captivity. He ate what the guerrillas ate: "Rice, rice, rice -- the whole time, I ate only rice."

"They gave me encouraging words that things were going to be all right, that I'd be leaving soon, not to worry, that they would take care of me," he said. "I had a really lovely time with them."

But Villegas was careful to say that his 12-day kidnapping ordeal -- a fleeting moment compared to hostage situations that routinely drag on for months or years -- was not a vacation. For six to eight hours every day, the guerrillas forced him to march with them through densely forested mountains. Despite the growing friendship, the guerrillas repeated their threats to him that if they came across their enemies, Villegas would die. To evade army soldiers and paramilitaries, the guerrillas constantly moved.

"I wouldn't wish this experience on my worst enemy," he said.

Meanwhile, many were working to secure Villegas' freedom. Christian leaders approached imprisoned ELN leaders in Medellin, said Pedro Hernandez, head of Medellin's pastoral alliance (AMEM) and national director of Christ for the City International. AMEM asked the guerrilla leaders to help free Villegas. The guerrillas, in turn, contacted Cuba. Fidel Castro is mediating peace talks in Havana between Bogota and the ELN.

Villegas' church spearheaded a city-wide 24-hour prayer vigil for him. Christians around the world learned of his plight and joined Medellin's churches in prayer.

A meeting was arranged between Andrés Puerta, head pastor at Family Christian Church, and ELN Commander Alex, who was holding Villegas. "God did something in his heart," Villegas said. "Also, higher-ups pressured him to free me."

In the end, "They ransomed me for a Bible," Villegas said. Puerta gave one to Commander Alex, who agreed to release Villegas. And before Villegas left the guerrilla camp, he gave his Bible to one of the guerrillas.

Villegas believes there was another reason for his kidnapping: learning reliance on God alone. "God told me, 'Last night you slept in a comfortable bed. Now you don't have anything. You don't have your church; you don't have your family; you don't have comforts. You only have Me.'"

Copyright 2002, Compass News Direct. Used with Permission.