A global network of Catholic aid agencies is asking churches across the world to pray for peace in the war-torn nation of Colombia this Saturday, Oct. 24. The call to prayer to help raise attention to the “largely forgotten suffering of the Colombian people,” is part of the agency’s international campaign for peace in Colombia.
Caritas International, a confederation of 162 Catholic humanitarian organizations around the world, launched on Sunday its “Peace is Possible” campaign based on the position of the Colombian Bishop’s Conference that “peace can only be obtained through negotiations and peace can only be sustained through social justice.” The three-year campaign calls for greater involvement of the international community in supporting negotiations between the armed actors, international aid policies that contribute to social justice and the creation of an environment in which peace negotiations are possible, and national and international recognition of and response to the humanitarian crisis.
“In my country, we are trapped in a bloody conflict that has lasted for almost 40 years. It is a very dirty war,” said Hector Fabio Henao, the national director of Caritas Colombia.
With over three million Colombians having been displaced since 1985, Colombia is experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis in the western hemisphere with the third highest rate of internally displaced persons in the world.
“In the last three months, 65,000 people have been displaced. 80 percent of the displaced people live in conditions of extreme poverty and lack access to adequate food,” Henao told Ekklesia News. “Young people are among the casualties of the war. They are brutalized by being forced to become child soldiers. At least 11,000 children under 14 have been forced to fight.”
Colombia has also become one the most dangerous places for human rights workers, journalists, union leaders and church leaders. In the last decade 57 Catholic representatives including bishops, priests, nuns and seminarians have been killed; the number is even higher for Protestant pastors.
According to Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the official international humanitarian agency of the U.S. Catholic community, the current conflict in Colombia is rooted in a long history of economic inequality, a weak state presence in much of the country, political exclusion, impunity and social fragmentation. In recent years the conflict has intensified dramatically due in large part to the infusion of new resources—from both drug-related profits that many of the armed actors currently receive, and more recently from a significant infusion of U.S. military aid.
“The war has destroyed the country’s infrastructure and increased poverty,” Henao said. “The number of people unable to buy food has risen over the last ten years to 34 percent. Employment, health, and education have all regressed in the last ten years.”
Currently, the Church of Colombia is central to peace efforts in war-torn nation, and has been working for negotiated outcome to the armed conflict for decades.
On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that Marxist rebels wanted to speak with representatives of the Roman Catholic Church to seek help in facilitating an exchange with the government of kidnapped hostages for jailed guerrillas.
“We are prepared to meet with representatives of the Catholic church as many times as is necessary, in any place that has (security) guarantees for them as well as us,” Raul Reyes, spokesman of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said in a statement broadcast by Noticias Uno television on Monday night.
In addition to helping facilitate negotiations between the different warring parties on all levels, the Church also works to build a culture of peace in Colombia through education, and provides food, shelter and medicines for the victims of the conflict. But as Henao pointed out, “In this work, the support of our sister churches throughout the world is vital.”
CRS, which has worked in Colombia since 1954, launched in 2000 its “In Solidarity with Colombia Program” in response to the request by the Colombian Church and social organizations. The aim of the program is to work in partnership toward a peaceful, secure future for the people of Colombia. As reported by the agency, CRS/Colombia focuses activities on providing an integral humanitarian response to the victims of the conflict and natural disasters, and supporting church and civil society efforts to defend human rights and work for peace in the country.
Last week, CRS joined a coalition of ecumenical organizations calling for President Bush and Senator Kerry to reassess their respective strategies toward Colombia. In a letter delivered to the Bush Administration and the Kerry campaign Thursday, the group called on both candidates to “envision a new strategy” in U.S.-Colombia relations.
The letter was signed by more than 700 representatives of faith communities across the United States including the Presiding Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church, U.S.A.; the Presidents of Catholic Relief Services; Lutheran World Relief; the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the national Jesuit Conference, and Church World Services.