Colombia: Among the FARC, a growing Christian presence


Date:                 February 26, 2015


Anti-Church violence has abated, but Colombia's faithful still feel pressure

By Deann Alford

After a half-century of continuous civil war in Colombia, a new story is beginning to emerge: Guerrillas in half of the fronts of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, can be openly Christian and not killed for it.

FARC leadership allows its militants to listen to Christian radio stations operated by the Bogota-based ministry, Colombia for Christ.

Currently, 29 comandantes military commanders — are meeting for peace talks in Havana with representatives of the Colombian government. The talks began in November 2012.

The guerrillas' lead negotiator is its secretariat member, Ivan Marquez, who identified three among the FARC's Havana negotiators as Christians, and told World Watch Monitor that people are free to follow the religion of their choice.

These comandantes have an unlikely friend named Russell Martin Stendal, a missionary whom the group kidnapped more than 30 years ago. Stendal launched Colombia for Christ with his former captors in mind. His audacious vision: that all of the FARC can learn about Christianity and that, if embraced, it will change guerrillas' hearts and minds. That alone will end the violence, Stendal said.

The Christian message, he said, is getting through, at least at the top. Whether it trickles down to the Colombian villages, where guerrillas continue to harass Christians, is another matter.

Stendal's challenge is not limited to the FARC. The Associated Press reports Colombia's regional prosecutor in Bogotá has accused the 59-year-old missionary from Minnesota of playing "a starring role" in a "terrorist support network whose work consisted in setting up portable radio stations that were used to spread terrorist propaganda."

Police called Stendal to the police station on Feb. 18 , where he surrendered, posting a short video on the way into jail. The next day, Feb. 19, a judge released Stendal, ruling the government's evidence, based on the testimony of jailed demobilized FARC guerrillas eager to bargain for reduced sentences, was weak. She said Stendal, at risk to himself by venturing into war zones, has been a benefit to Colombia, not a threat.

Stendal has lived in Colombia since childhood, and his years of evangelistic work, supported by ministries in Colombia, the United States, Canada and Europe, has brought trouble to him from across the spectrum: the government, its right-wing paramilitaries, and leftist rebels. He has spent time in the custody of each, including his five-month abduction by rebels in 1983.

In recent months, however, the guerrilla leaders in Havana have welcomed visits from both Colombian and North American Christians. Among them are two men in their late 80s: a founder of the Full Gospel Business Men's Fellowship and a military retiree. Colombian visitors include Luis Humberto Montejo, a Christian who is the past governor of the Colombian department, or state, of Boyacá.

Marquez, when asked if Christians can be found within the FARC movement, singled out three "saints" among the negotiators seated with him at the lunch table. "San Noel, San Yuri and Santrich," he said, referring to FARC officials Noel Perez and Yuri Camargo and to his right-hand man, Jesús Santrich.

Is there a San Ivan among them? Marquez smiled a little. "Not yet."

And Stendal? "Martin is an apostle of peace whose words generate a favourable environment to advance the search for peace, who encourages us on our journey for the search for a political solution for the Colombian conflict," Marquez told World Watch Monitor, referring to Stendal by his middle name.

"Martin is a man who is very kind with deep social feeling," Santrich said, "detached from prejudices and transparent, with a conciliatory spirit that imparts and generates confidence, not only with his words but also with his deeds." Stendal, he said, is "a person who has for a very long time been involved in communities trying to reach the poorest people."

Signs of openness

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia began in 1964 as the military branch of the Colombian Communist Party. Since its inception, the FARC has carried out violent attacks not only against those it perceives as supporting the Colombian government, but also against the nation's electricity towers, roads and bridges. It has financed itself through kidnapping, extortion, illegal mining, coca cultivation, cocaine production and narcotrafficking. Since 1997 the US State Department has listed the FARC as a foreign terrorist organization.

Historically the communist, and thus atheist, guerrilla movement has regarded the church as competition for Colombian hearts and minds. Through the years, the FARC has forcibly shuttered and razed churches, murdered pastors, extorted congregations, kidnapped missionaries and church leaders and forcibly conscripted church youth into its ranks.

But with the Cold War long over and the group's old-guard leaders dead, signs of an openness toward Colombia's church have emerged. Virginia Bouvier, a senior program officer for Latin America at the United States Institute of Peace, a congressionally created security agency, notes that in recent years the group has largely rejected violence as a means to bring about change.

During the past decade, Colombia's armed forces have made huge strides against the rebels, whose options are limited: Bargain with the Colombian government or go back to fighting in the jungle — a war the rebels have been losing. In August 2012 President Juan Manuel Santos announced he had begun exploratory peace talks with the group. Along with land concessions for the nation's poor and other demands, rebels themselves want a political voice via seats in the nation's Senate and Chamber of Representatives, and to serve no jail time in exchange for laying down their weapons.

The public remains torn between wanting to see guerrillas punished for their crimes and a desire to end the war. A 2012 nationwide poll found that Colombians place most of the blame for the country's violence on the guerrillas. The same poll found that 82 percent regard the guerrillas as criminals; only 13 percent said the rebels represent "revolutionary ideals." In June 2014 by a narrow margin, President Juan Manuel Santos won re-election on a pro-talks platform. There have been protests both in favour and opposed to a settlement.

It's "hard to say" what the takeaway is, if anything, from the election results regarding the FARC's public standing and bargaining position, said Richard L. Millett, professor emeritus of history at Southern Illinois University, and member of the board of the American Committees on Foreign Relations. The outcome "indicates to me that a slight majority of Colombians are more interested in peace than in punishing the FARC," Millett said.

Santos pressed forward, asking the United States in December for help. On Feb. 20, the U.S. responded with the appointment of a special envoy to the talks: Bernard "Bernie" Aronson, a former assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs. Both Santos and FARC leadership responded warmly.

Still hostile to the Church

Though the Spaniards arrived to conquer the land 500 years ago, many areas in Colombia, a country of rugged terrain the size of Texas and California combined, have never known institutional authority. The power vacuum provided room to illegal armed groups, such as the FARC and other insurgencies, to overcome local resistance and assert control.

In many areas of Colombia, "FARC has provided a role of the state," Bouvier said. In addition to stepping in to serve as arbiter and social service provider, some of its projects, such as roads and bridges, benefit communities. 

"Initially, it served a purpose that's been helpful in some communities," Bouvier said. In some communities, clashes erupted between FARC and community organizations over control, and "civil society was in the crossfire."

The FARC still considers itself a defender against what it considers to be detrimental. An example is a July 2013 edict issued by FARC's 32nd Front, which controls parts of southern Colombia. The 46-point edict, titled "Manual of coexistence for the smooth functioning of communities," begins:

"We invite everyone to subject themselves to the following rules, which will better the proper functioning of communities and assure that improved coexistence, harmony and brotherhood will ensure the security and well-being of all."

The edict asserts rules governing an array of activity, including curfews, price controls, mandatory work days for residents over age 15, and powers for "communal action boards" ranging from granting permission for residents and visitors to come and go, to property transactions and mandatory crop cultivation. It limits possession of cellular phones to two per family, bans phones with cameras "for security reasons," and requires a registry of all incoming and outgoing calls from public telephones.

Among the 46 points is this: "Evangelism chapels will only be constructed in county seats." Another: "Pastors and priests will celebrate their Masses only in churches in county seats."

Though the FARC may have weakened generally, Christians continue to experience a high level of antagonism and violence, according to Open Doors International, a charity that supports Christians who live under pressure because of their faith. According to the organization, guerrillas recruited Juliana Karen Bueno, 13, into FARC's 27 Front in July 2014, and killed her three days later.

Three months earlier, the FARC ordered 11 pastors in the sparsely populated Arauca department to stop preaching the Gospel, Open Doors said.

The FARC's involvement with organized crime means Christians often get caught in the crossfire between the rebels, paramilitary groups and criminal gangs. In January 2014, a father and son, both recent Christian converts, were killed over a drug debt that pre-dated their conversion, Open Doors said. In December 2013, FARC forces in the jungled, heavily indigenous Vaupés department, where the guerrillas control much of the drug trafficking, drove out a pastor, his wife and two children for promoting Christianity.

The FARC tolerates little dissent within its ranks or outside it. Spin abounds. Members seem careful to say nothing against other Communist regimes. Upon mention of North Korea, Santrich said, "We aren't going to criticize Korea, neither here nor anybody else because each one of these peoples has made its own efforts to create their own organizational systems."

Nor is the Marxist ideology dead. Many Christians in Colombia refuse to send their children to take part in FARC "community work days." Often the children return home rejecting church teachings, and many of them join the guerrillas. Stendal said the FARC's practice of indoctrinating children is "very" prevalent.

"They're indeed recruiting" into their ranks, a former Colombian worker for Open Doors International told World Watch Monitor. The worker's name is being withheld to preserve the person's security.

"Their recruitment target is Christian youth because they're so obedient," the former employee said.  And though the organization has documented no religiously motivated murders of pastors since 2009 at the hands of the FARC, "there have been other types of persecution — threats, extortion, forcible church closures, forbidding the preaching of the gospel."

'God has His foot in the door'

Stendal estimates that at least 10 percent of FARC guerrillas are now Christian. He notes that when guerrillas become Christians—and he said he's seen hundreds of them do so—the last thing to change is their minds. Typically, he says, the transformation first is seen in their actions. They may question orders, or refuse to carry out evil deeds, or even flee the guerrilla group, though any of these are grounds for punishment up to execution.

But then, "By the time the Roman Empire became officially Christian, at least half all Romans were already secretly Christian," he said. "Converted guerrillas get aggressive for the gospel."

The battle ultimately never is against individuals or governments or even rebel movements, Stendal said. The battle is against evil, and that, he said, demands prayer.

"I am not so optimistic about the 'peace process' per se. The politicians involved are for the most part extremely corrupt and unreliable," he said. "I am, however, optimistic as I see God changing many hearts on all the different sides of this conflict.... They've received us, and God has His foot in the door.

"God is definitely doing something in Colombia that will impact the entire world, and some of the guerrillas are part of it," Stendal said. The rebel leadership's changing attitude ultimately will affect ordinary Colombians, he said. "It means that there will be more freedom to openly worship the Lord."

The most crucial piece of evidence of change within the FARC is the movement's lead negotiator, Ivan Marquez himself.

"I know the look in the eyes of Ivan Marquez," said Helmer Idrebo, 52, who, under the nom de guerre Geronimo, spent 33 years as a guerrilla in Western Colombia. As head of the FARC 8th Front's militia, his job was keeping the civilian population in line and obedient. He became a Christian in 2007.

He sees television news reports about the Havana peace talks. He has noticed a transformation in Marquez, his former colleague.

"A year ago the look in his eyes was completely different," Idrebo said. "The look in his eyes has changed. I'm certain that something has now touched his heart. I don't know what's happened, but I do know that God has placed his hand on him. 

"Where God places his hands, I'm sure he won't take his hands off him if his work isn't finished (because) God never leaves something halfway done," he said.

"Ivan Marquez has been dirty, he's been filthy, as I have been. But what's touched Ivan was the hand of God that touched me, the same that changed me."


Q&A with the comandantes

For three days in December 2013, World Watch Monitor was the guest of Colombia for Christ founder Russell Martin Stendal and his daughter Alethia Stendal, a filmmaker, as they paid a pastoral visit to four peace negotiators for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Over those days WWM asked a series of questions in several locations in Cuba: a house on Havana Bay where those affiliated with Colombia for Christ frequently stay; at La Ferminia restaurant; and on a tour of the colonial Fort San Carlos de la Cabaña.

The missionary:

Russell Martin Stendal, 59, missionary. He arrived in Colombia at age 8 with his siblings and parents, linguists with Wycliffe Bible Translators. Upon reaching adulthood, he remained in Colombia as a missionary pilot, focusing on helping economically disadvantaged Colombians get their goods to market. Today his Colombia for Christ ministry includes Garita Radio, a network that broadcasts the gospel throughout most of the embattled country. His outreach distributes Bibles, Christian literature and solar-power fix-tuned Galcom radios, sometimes dropped via parachute from an airplane in areas where churches have been forcibly shuttered for decades. His daughter, Alethia Stendal, 28, serves as photographer and cinematographer for Colombia for Christ. He is not a member of the FARC, nor does he represent the group.

FARC negotiators:

Ivan Marquez, 59, second in command of the FARC's secretariat, the rebel group's highest command, and head of the FARC's 29 delegates in Havana. Marquez rose through the ranks of FARC's political arm, the Patriotic Union, serving as a congressman from the southern Colombian department of Caquetá. He also served as a negotiator representing the FARC in peace negotiations with the Colombian government in 1992 and from 1998-2002.

Jesús Santrich, 48, right-hand man to Marquez and a member of the FARC's general staff. He joined the guerrilla movement following completion of postgraduate studies in history.

Yuri Camargo, 43, former leader of the FARC's 52nd Front. He joined the insurgency at 13, and has served as a dentist for the FARC.

Noel Pérez, 59, second in command of the FARC's 26th Front, which kidnapped Russell Martin Stendal in 1983. The story of the peace agreement that Stendal accidentally brokered in 2003 between Pérez's guerrillas and paramilitaries of the United Self-defences of Colombia became the subject of Alethia Stendal's movie La Montaña.

Here are edited excerpts from the conversations:

World Watch Monitor: How are the peace negotiations progressing?

Ivan Marquez: We've reached partial agreements with the government on agrarian and rural land reform.

Russell Stendal: A parallel theme is Colombia's millions of displaced people with nowhere to go, many Christians among them.

Marquez: There are 6 million people violently displaced from rural areas by paramilitaries now with another name, "bacrim" (criminal gangs).

Stendal: This guerrilla land initiative for displaced people will benefit Christians because there won't discrimination regarding who will get land. They don't have to be atheist, right?

Marquez: No, everybody. The campesinos without land, who don't have titles.

Jesús Santrich: In Colombia, most campesinos' religion is Christianity. But when the guerrillas do their public works and present their projects, they don't specify that people should be Christian or not. Religion is a matter of each person's intimate conscience. The beliefs, culture and customs of all the people must be respected.

The general Havana accord regarding war and peace in Colombia has a six-point agenda: Rural agrarian order that underlies social injustice; citizen participation in democracy and in the defining the country's destiny; victims of this conflict; illicit drug cultivation; and implementing the accords. (Read the FARC's minimum proposals here). We believe this should receive a civil treatment through dialogue. The Colombian people want a negotiated exit to the conflict.

But the Colombian government is trying to paint us as victimisers. We say that a truth commission examining what happened is essential to not arrive at wrong, distorted conclusions.

Stendal: The FARC has said they're willing to accept their part of the responsibility and encourage all the other actors to also accept their responsibilities.

Santrich: Yes. We're willing to face reality with honest, ethical people who have neither a slant nor bad intentions. If they show that we've made mistakes, we're willing to own up to that. But not through accusations by a Colombian judicial system, for example, that's corrupt, broken down, and widely discredited. There should be transparent, truthful mechanisms for war crimes of the guerrillas and their counterparts to be brought to the light.

Marquez: We need a truth commission because the government is trying to stigmatise the guerrillas as the only responsible party. We'd like to hold a day of contrition in which all sides commit to "never again," that what has happened will not be repeated. The guerrillas and comandantes and everybody will do the same. This would truly generate a new situation in the country.

Santrich: We've never had any systemic plan to abuse the people. In this war, clearly there have been mistakes and excesses. We have to look at them and answer for them.

Marquez: Yes, errors and regretable damages, right? These have been presented.

Stendal: Looking toward the future, the future will improve for Christians in Colombia. They're going to live more safely with fewer problems.

Santrich: More precisely, Christians aren't less safe because of the guerrillas. We've never had a position against Christians. Today there are many Christian guerrillas. There are those who believe in Christ, who believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Virgin of Carmen. We've always held that the people's religiosity must be respected. Our rules speak of this. We don't carry out any persecution because the other person thinks different from us regarding religion. It is not natural for us to persecute. There are safeguards we're always trying to apply to keep (guerrillas) from going outside the line, but it happens.

Stendal: The incidents we've seen are fewer. In the past two years, I don't know of any pastors killed at the hands of the FARC.

Santrich: I don't believe there are. Nobody should be persecuted or has been persecuted because of their religious beliefs. Many pastors are our friends. We work with them in many regions doing community work. We try to not reject one church or another but rather try to understand the community's beliefs. But the only thing we said is that they should help the community advance down the road of progress and well-being. Generally, what we do is ask communities' pastors to help us organise community work. We have good, fraternal relationship of political commitment, not in the sense that they become part of the FARC but rather that they understand policy regarding community service. 

World Watch Monitor: What has been Russell Stendal's role in encouraging the FARC in peace negotiations?

Ivan Marquez: Martin [The FARC negotiators refer to Stendal by his middle name] is an apostle of peace. He's a person whose words generate a favorable environment to advance the quest for peace, who encourages us on our journey for the search for a political solution for the Colombian conflict. It's essential to see how Colombians can peacefully construct a better future for everybody with social justice above all. Social justice is essential to peace. We need true democracy. I believe Martin has played a positive role. 

Santrich: Martin is a very kind man with a deep social conscience, detached from prejudices, and transparent, with a conciliatory spirit that imparts and generates confidence, not only with his words but also with his deeds. When Ivan says he's an apostle of peace, it isn't a rhetorical statement. For a very long time he's been involved in communities trying to reach the poorest. He seems to me to be a magnificent man of truth. Martin has filled us with optimism and hope to continue forward in this difficult process.

Yuri Camargo: So in this conflict, the church has a huge responsibility. They've wanted to blame the insurgency as the only guilty party in this conflict, when there's a bloodthirsty oligarchy, a group of power elites at the forefront of Colombia's designs and purposes, the church itself, the industrial sector. A truth commission will investigate who has truly caused the war.

Stendal: The only way to continue in peace is if everybody reflects upon what happened and each one accepts their part.

Camargo: Absolutely. We aren't saying that we weren't to blame at all. We've caused terror, haven't we? But the time will come in which we all will have to answer to the country, not just the insurgency as the Colombian government claims.

In some regions of the country, the Colombian Army itself has used religion against the guerrillas, making it seem like we guerrillas are devils. Army deputies doing counterinsurgency work have infiltrated the pastorates of many evangelical churches. The issue is figuring out how to stop this vicious cycle of vengeance.

Stendal: It's one thing to negotiate a paper here and another to implement this in Colombia, where many people are not in favour of it. There must be a change of heart, hearts open to forgive, hearts touched by God. It has to do with an inner change.

True Christianity isn't allowing bad things to continue and doing nothing about it. We have to face it with all resources and with all the weapons that we have within our reach, but we cannot continue the vicious cycle of reacting in a way that causes more reactions. People on different sides now are motivated to try and end 50 years of war. And as Yuri says, everybody will have to accept their responsibility. The only thing that can be done is to put it into the light of the truth. Each person must recognize their part and do what they can to provide restitution to victims to the extent that it's possible, at least make a good effort of doing this and a new beginning where things will be different with God's help.

Camargo: Colombians are very Christian, aren't they? And we're with the church. We all must respect the religious beliefs of the people. The problem is that in many places, some priests and evangelicals have done counterinsurgency work. Where the Colombian government hasn't met local needs for basic services, some evangelicals and priests implement policies that harm the community, to disrupt our health, education, and highway projects.

Stendal: We send the gospel message via radio that to walk with God, individuals should first strengthen themselves. After each person gets clean and their hearts are right, then they can look for others of like mind and fellowship in houses. Usually this hasn't clashed with the guerrillas. People as radical as (late FARC leader) Mono Jojoy have authorized his people to listen to our radio stations.

Camargo: Where some entire villages are evangelical, the church leadership forbids them to take part in a community action committee to build a road, for example, or take a day to do a work in the school. 

World Watch Monitor: What will be the future for Christians in Colombia? Will they have a better future if this peace treaty is approved? Or if they don't approve it, what will be their future, from your perspective? 

Camargo: I don't know. It's difficult to predict, isn't it? If the accord goes through, most problems in Colombia such as social inequality would be solved. So to achieve this, logically Colombians would have to have another vision. The way we are now has resulted in many having embittered hearts given to violence and vengeance. But coming to a peace accord, it's logical that this must begin to break down. We must at least forgive each other of our sins that we've committed. 

World Watch Monitor: Speaking of specific cases, for example, here's a copy of the FARC's 32nd Front's order to close churches. Does the FARC intend to ban such orders, rescind them or what exactly? In specific cases such as this one, I'd like to know from your point of view whether things are going to change.

Camargo: Well, as I've been saying, in some areas military intelligence has infiltrated churches. We're simply not going to permit that this veneer of religion be used as a front. Of course churches have had to be closed for this kind of problem. In the case of the 32nd Front, the last news we have is that churches can open Saturdays and Sundays, but not during the week. In many regions, the pastors want the congregation to be in a church service every day. When the people are needed to do community work on a school or on a highway or road, they can't because they're in a church service. In many areas they don't even let children go to school because they have to be in a church service. We see this as negative for community development.

World Watch Monitor: What about curfews? Why not allow people to move around at night?

Camargo: The countryside is a battleground with guerrillas, paramilitaries and Army everywhere. At night there's a very big risk because of the darkness, plus land mines. For this reason we say to not go out at night.

World Watch Monitor: Are the sides are close to agreement?

Camargo: Well, this is the goal, and this is the aspiration of every guerrilla, to truly arrive at that point. The government has to yield many points, just as we also have to yield. We're fighting to reconcile ourselves, to leave behind hatred, to clear our hearts. This is the most important point we should make. If we leave hatred and bitterness in our hearts, it will be difficult because first we have to disarm ourselves from within.

World Watch Monitor: What do you believe will change the hearts of men?

Camargo: Well, exactly this: that we all put in our little grain of sand for peace. That we leave behind our bitterness. There must be a political decision to look at everybody as brothers, as fathers, as sons, that we leave behind the bitterness we've held for so many years. Let's disarm these hearts in the sense that some want to crush those who have nothing. Then we in the insurgency in Colombia want to fight precisely against these huge inequalities, so that everybody might have opportunities, that we can all live with dignity. It grieves us to go to many areas of the country and see children dying of hunger and misery, children who have no education. 

World Watch Monitor: Above all else regarding Martin's platform is his mission to achieve peace in each heart through Christ. What do you think of this?

Camargo: One can say it's the light of hope. We have to all look at it and contemplate, reflect toward this end, right? Of solving all the problems, as much as the Colombian state as we are thinking as Christ thought, toward the destination where we need to go. This would be like true north, like the compass for all of us to arrive at this end and precisely why Christ gave his life. These are revolutionary ideas, aren't they? 

World Watch Monitor: You've listened to Colombia for Christ's broadcasts many years. How has his message impacted you? 

Camargo: The important part of his messages brought to many parts of the country via his radio stations is that hearts must be "disarmed," that we all must work together and listen to one another, tolerate each other as human beings, as brothers. It's an important message, different from what you hear on most radio stations. The messages of other stations aim to numb people to remain in misery, a message of selling things, of instilling into the campesinos things have nothing to do with true values that each citizen possesses. Through (Colombia for Christ) radio stations, the message penetrates the deepest corners of the jungle, a message of peace that quickly calls the attention of the guerrilla. It has helped a lot.

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