Hooded Gunmen Fire on Colombian Church Congregation

Unknown assailants fired upon a church congregation in the town of Puerto Asis in Colombia, killing three and wounding 14.
( [email protected] ) Sep 06, 2004 07:47 PM EDT

An evangelical church in southern Colombia packed with hymn-singing worshipers was met by gunfire Saturday night as hooded gunmen burst in and opened fire. The attack left three dead and 14 others wounded, authorities said on Sunday.

"We were singing hymns to God when I heard the shooting, a burst of gunfire," the church's pastor, Francisco Sevillano told Reuters. Sevillano said he knew of no threats against his church.

Maj. Eduardo Beltran, police commander in Puerto Asis where the shooting took place, said the unknown assailants entered the church Saturday night and shot and killed a man in the pews.

The apparent target of the hit men was in another row with his family, however, and when the shooting started, he took out a gun and shot back, the commander said.

"It turned into a firefight," Beltran told the Associate Press.

After the gunfire, the gunmen fled the bloody scene leaving behind propaganda in favor of Marxist rebels, reported a local television station.

Pilar Castro, a hospital doctor, told local radio that the death toll numbered four, however there was no immediate way to account for the discrepancy.

According to Beltran, two men and one woman were among those dead. One of the injured was a child, he added.

Investigations indicate that right-wing militia groups or common criminals may have been behind the attack.

The town of Puerto Asis, some 330 miles southwest of Bogota, the capital, is not unfamiliar with local killings as they are common and often related to the drug trade or the struggle between leftist guerillas and the illegal paramilitaries (both drawing funds from cocaine). According to Reuters, it has known to be a stronghold of far-right paramilitary outlaws in jungle near the border with Ecuador dotted with illegal coca plantations.

According to the Voice of the Martyrs, churches and Christian leaders in Colombia have been specifically targeted by Marxist groups belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), particularly those leaders who actively oppose the drug trade and other corruption in the country.

Hundreds of church buildings have been attacked and there have been numerous kidnappings of church leaders. Pastors and youth leaders are especially targeted since their influence on their young people makes it difficult for Colombian Marxist and paramilitary groups to recruit them into their ranks.

The rebel groups effectively control large areas of south central Colombia as well as thousands of acres of drug fields. In their areas of control, churches often face curfews. In some areas, public religious activities have been completely banned.