Ecumenical accompaniment program seeks to address violence in Colombia

October 11, 2011

The first meeting of the International Reference Group of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Colombia was held Oct. 6-8 at the offices of the Episcopal Diocese of Colombia in Bogota, kicking off a program modeled after the World Council of Church's Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) to address violence and human rights violations in the South American country, which has suffered decades of internal armed conflict.

Since it launched in 2002, the EAPPI has had 929 "ecumenical accompaniers" from 20 countries. Ecumenical accompaniers participate in the life of communities and work with local organizations that carry out non-violent actions to promote and defend justice and contribute to the protection and implementation of human rights. After volunteering in local communities, accompaniers return to their own communities to educate others about the crisis and advocate for an end to the violence.

"The IRG was asked to collect and present proposals from the churches to the government for the regulation of the law on victim reparation, so that together with civil society and institutions the churches can contribute to the law and be agreed upon with civil society and the victims of the conflict," said Colombia Bishop Francisco Duque in an e-mail to ENS. "As churches and international ecclesial bodies, a significant concern was expressed that, despite the existence of programs and laws which seek integral reparation, there still exist serious violations of the rights of individuals and communities who are searching for the reparation and restoration of their lands."

The International Reference Group (IRG) will work to offer ecumenical accompaniment to communities that have been affected by the violence and human rights violations that have characterized Colombia over the past 60 years, he added.

Organized by the Rev. Nilton Giese, general secretary of the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI), the meeting was attended by representatives from the World Council of Churches, the United Church of Canada, the Regional Ecumenical Advisory and Service Center, the CLAI-Colombia National Roundtable, ACT Alliance, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, World Lutheran Federation, the Presbyterian Church USA, Kairos Canada, ACT-Colombia Forum, the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission of Colombia, and the Association of Evangelical Churches of the Colombian Caribbean.

The idea of creating an accompaniment program first arose in 2009 during a meeting in Colombia of leaders from CLAI, WCC, LWF and ACT Alliance. Since 2010 CLAI has challenged its member churches and ecumenical organizations in Colombia to structure a program to assist the country’s victims of violence, explained Giese in an e-mail to ENS.

The first meetings to structure the accompaniment program took place in 2010. But it was in February 2011 that the CLAI-Colombia National Roundtable made a visible commitment in Rincón del Mar, in the north of Colombia, a region marked by violence by armed groups, where CLAI churches and ecumenical bodies began to create the first draft of the program, Giese added.

During the Oct. 6-8 meeting, the CLAI-Colombia National Roundtable, presided over by Duque, initiated a series of dialogues intended to continue a ministry of presence and advocacy in the accompaniment of victims of violence; and government officials spoke about Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ government’s national plan of reparation.

The national plan of reparation, explained Duque, is a law adopted by Santos' government to compensate the victims of the country's internal armed conflict from 1984 to the present.

"The victims are expected to be compensated economically and morally because of the lack of government action in protecting their rights and property during these years of conflict and that their lands will be returned to them when they have been taken violently," he said.

In Colombia, according to government statistics, there are about three million people who are displaced due to the armed conflict, though human rights organizations say that right now there are close to five million people internally displaced by violence, Giese said.

In December 2009, the attorney general of Colombia's office listed 2,520 cases of forced disappearance, of a total of 35,665 confessed crimes by paramilitaries; 2,388 graves were exhumed and 2,091 bodies were recovered, of which only 796 have been returned to families. Similarly, the guerillas – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the National Liberation Army, or ELN -- have committed massacres, indiscriminate attacks, forced displacement, torture, kidnapping, and sexual violence. In the department of Arauca in 2009, 194 homicides were committed due to the fighting between the FARC and the ELN, Giese explained.

Santos' government has shown interest in addressing the humanitarian crisis experienced by victims of the conflict, Giese said; however, he has continued with the economic policy of opening the country to encourage foreign investment. Because of this, the new armed groups, now called criminal gangs (BACRIM) -- many of whom are demobilized paramilitaries -- fight for control of territory and seize or reject businesses linked to this economic policy.

At that meeting it was affirmed that the core of the accompaniment program is its clear and unambiguous option for nonviolence, Giese said.

"Nonviolent love is the strongest force in the universe," he said.

A humanitarian crisis after five decades of war

"Colombia is currently facing one of the world's most serious humanitarian crises. As a result of the civil conflict lasting over five decades, thousands of people have lost their lives; millions are being forcibly displaced, mostly indigenous people, Afro-Colombians and farmers, as they are forced to leave their communities due to the wide spread of violence," said Carlos Ham, the WCC's program executive for Diakonia & Latin America-Caribbean. "Human rights defenders, trade-unionists, church and community leaders who dare to raise their voices denouncing the violence committed by the armed groups often become victims of enforced disappearances and killings."

The assessment from leaders in communities that have national and international accompaniment is that accompaniment helps to protect them and increases the security of individuals and communities that are continuously subjected to threats and persecution. It has therefore been proved that international accompaniment offers an alternative way of protecting and saving the lives of leaders and communities who do not trust the authorities whose job it is to protect them. The authorities have failed in this respect and many threats come from the security services that are entrusted with ensuring the security of the population, said Ham.

"The main thing about this program is that the churches and the ecumenical movement have heeded the call to participate and contribute their experience of the kind of protection being provided by national and international organizations, adding a solidarity-based ecumenical presence in regions where there is little or no international accompaniment," he said.

"They seek in this way to strengthen accompaniment with an emphasis on grassroots local and regional communities and processes."

Through the practice of accompaniment and advocacy, Colombia's program seeks to support local and international efforts to achieve a negotiated solution to the conflict in Colombia, based on international law. It will seek to be a permanent witness of the supportive and solidarity presence of churches and the national and international ecumenical community among communities and organizations that work for and support the return of the land of displaced communities, the defense of human rights, the search for justice and the construction of life and peace through dialogue in Colombia. Alongside these communities, the program wants to encourage the presence of international ecumenical companions for periods of up to three months, Giese said.

In Colombia, the program is coordinated by the Rev. Chris Ferguson, who was assigned by the United Church of Canada, and was one of the founders of the international accompaniment program in Palestine and Israel.

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