Kidnappers Demand Hefty Ransom for Colombian Pastor

Wednesday, April 18, 2001

Evidence Points to Profit as the Primary Motive for the Abduction of Jorge Enrique Gomez
by David Miller
April 18, 2001

BOGOTA, Colombia (Compass) -- March 25 was a special Sunday for the 18,000 evangelical Christians who attend the Bethesda Missionary Center church in Bogota, Colombia. It marked the fortieth day of captivity for their pastor, Jorge Enrique Gomez, kidnapped on Valentine's Day by a band of heavily armed men.

Since 40 days is the Biblical span for spiritual testing, Gomez's congregation expected an important development in the case to occur on that Sunday, for good or ill. The pastoral staff of Bethesda Center churches organized a 48-hour prayer vigil on Friday and Saturday, broadcasting appeals for Christians across the country to intercede for Gomez.

But the day came and went with no news of the megachurch pastor's fate. What has become clear in the past 40 days, however, is that Gomez's ordeal has little to do with spiritual issues but much to do with money.

That is the assessment of Colombian church leaders, like Hector Pardo, a Bogota pastor and president of the Latin America Evangelical Confraternity.

"It is a lamentable thing that has happened to pastor Enrique Gomez and it hurts us a great deal," Pardo told Compass. "But really it is completely impossible for us to intervene in the matter. The kidnapping is not a result of his pastoral activity, or for religious reasons. They have made it clear that this is a kidnapping for extortion."

The circumstances of Gomez abduction also make it clear that his captors are primarily interested in profit. When insurgent groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) use kidnapping to advance political goals or intimidate enemies, they announce their demands publicly and soon. In this case, the guerrilla group has yet to claim responsibility for the crime. In fact, the kidnappers' have only once communicated their ransom demand, rumored to be between five hundred thousand and nine million dollars. It came by way of a phone call to Mrs. Melida Gomez, three weeks after her husband's capture.

Military intelligence believes that the FARC 42nd Front is holding Gomez. In recent years, the guerrillas have turned to kidnapping to finance their long-running war with the Colombian authorities. In the process, they have developed elaborate intelligence networks to assess the net worth of victims. This is particularly true of the FARC 42nd Front, whose commander, Antonio Roma¤a, heads the guerrilla army's finance department.

Observers say the kidnappers consider the high-profile Gomez a man of means. Over the course of his ministry, his church has acquired eight radio stations and built an 8,000-seat auditorium in Bogota. Gomez himself owns several rural properties, including a horse farm in Apulo. He had gone there to discuss business matters with four friends the day he was abducted.

Some church leaders speculate that Gomez's abductors expect the family to raise ransom money from congregational offerings, the sale of radio stations or loans against church properties. This is unlikely and would set a dangerous precedent. Guerrillas are not the only outlaws in the country who abduct people for profit. Indeed, Colombia leads the world in kidnappings.

"We are not in agreement that (a ransom) be paid, obviously because that opens the door for kidnappers to look for ways to extort profits from other pastors," Pardo said. "If in fact the (Gomez family) can afford to give them money, then they will think that all pastors are able to do that."

The Gomez case is not likely to end with a ransom payment. A Bethesda Center co-pastor told Compass that Jorge Enrique Gomez left strict orders with his staff and family: "No matter what happens, not one peso."

Other pastors believe guerrilla groups are not particularly interested in abducting evangelical ministers, the vast majority of whom are people of modest means.

"They know when a pastor lives in a simple way and the church uses the money to carry out its work," points out Mennonite pastor Peter Stucky. "It's another thing the kind of accumulation of capital some of the big churches have. And FARC has made public its directive that anybody worth over one million dollars must pay 'taxes' to the revolution."

If the wealth Gomez controls provoked his capture, the only resource likely to return him safely to his loved ones is prayer. In that regard, the megachurch pastor's notoriety has generated a good deal of prayer on his behalf. About 20 radio stations in Colombia broadcast appeals for Christians to participate in the 48-hour prayer vigil.

"The fact that he is a well-known person, due to his influence in the communications media across the country, has obviously awakened a greater sentiment of prayer on his behalf," said Guillermo Triana, President of the Evangelical Confederation of Colombia (CEDECOL). "This has, perhaps, not been true in other cases."

"Maybe some of us are not in agreement with his style of work," Tirana added, "but he is our brother and this causes us pain."

Copyright 2001, Compass News Direct. Used with Permission.