Pastors are issued warnings in north; evangelists murdered in southwest.

LOS ANGELES, March 18 (Compass Direct News) – Having been sentenced to die by leftist rebels for holding Christian worship services in 2006, a pastor in Colombia’s northern department of Arauca took seriously the death threats that guerrillas issued on Friday (March 13), according to Christian support organization Open Doors.

The rebels from the National Liberation Army (ELN) phoned a pastor of Ebenezer Church in Saravena at 5:30 a.m., telling him to meet them at a site on the Arauca River at 7 a.m. When the pastor, who requested anonymity, arrived at the landing, the guerrillas took him by canoe to the other side of the river – into Venezuela – then drove him to a guerrilla camp some 40 minutes away.

For the next three hours, the rebels warned him that area pastors have three options: cooperate with the revolutionary cause of the guerrillas, leave or die.

They warned him that pastors must not preach to ELN guerrillas – the Christian message of peace contradicts their military objectives – and could not support Christian political candidates without their permission.

“We do not want pastors and those attending their churches to participate in politics,” they told the pastor. “We do not want evangelicals in politics, because you do not support our ideals. We have nothing in common with evangelicals.”

The guerrillas said the ELN does not object to pastors preaching within church walls, but that the congregation must not talk of politics, war or peace. Before letting him go, they told him that the ELN will show no compassion on church members if they continue to disobey those directives.

Such threats were not new to the pastor. In 2006, Open Doors sources said, he and his family had to leave behind the church he pastored in Fortul village and much of their belongings after guerrillas threatened to kill him for preaching and leading Christian services in both a home and a worship building.

ELN forces took control of the area in 2007 and quickly declared Christian worship illegal; by January 2008, the guerrillas had closed seven churches and prohibited preaching of Christ in rural areas.

According to the U.S. Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report 2008, the Human Rights Unit of Colombia’s Prosecutor General’s Office is investigating killings in past years of 14 clergy members believed to have been targeted because they were outspoken critics of terrorist organizations. The Presidential Program for Human Rights reported that nearly all killings of priests by terrorist groups could be attributed to leftist guerrillas, particularly the FARC.

“Catholic and Protestant church leaders noted that killings of religious leaders in rural communities were generally underreported because of the communities’ isolation and fear of retribution,” the state department report notes. “Religious leaders generally chose not to seek government protection because of their pacifist beliefs and fear of retribution from terrorist groups.”

A human rights organization affiliated with the Mennonite church, Justicia, Paz y Acción No-violenta (Justapaz), asserted that guerrillas, former paramilitaries, and new criminal groups equally committed violence against evangelical church leaders, according to the state department report.

Leftist rebels opposed to Christian peace teachings continue to issue threats of violence against pastors and Christian leaders in various parts of Arauca department. On Feb. 28, ELN guerrillas took the pastor of another church to a guerrilla camp in Venezuela. Upset that pastors were taking advantage of the presence of the Colombian army to defy the guerrillas – publicly preaching Christ and using their pulpits for preaching peace – the rebels accused Christians of not helping with social projects.

“Preach inside churches, but do not let them die – worry how to save those that are with you,” one guerrilla told the pastor, who requested anonymity. “We will have to take drastic measures with pastors so they obey again.”

The pastor first had contact with rebels 12 years ago, when Marxist members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) held him for several days.

In Puerto Jordán, a municipality of Arauquita, last Dec. 9 presumed leftist rebels gave 40-year-old pastor Rodolfo Almeida eight days to leave. Open Doors reported that a young man came to his house at 8:30 at night and asked for his wife. Surprised that stranger would ask for her at that hour, Almeida asked why he wanted to see her. The young man then told him that he had eight days to leave town or his life would be threatened.

The stranger refused to tell Almeida what organization he was with. He only reminded him that he had been warned. The pastor had received similar threats from ELN rebels in 2007, and by the end of 2008 he and his wife decided to leave with their three children. Almeida had served for more than two years as co-pastor of Ebenezer Church in Arauquita.

Two unnamed Christian mayors in Arauca have also come under threat from the guerrillas, and on Feb. 15 a councilman was killed. Since they took office in January 2008, the mayors of Arauquita and Saravena have been attacked by ELN rebels several times, according to Open Doors. They have drawn the ire of the guerrillas because they cannot be bought as their predecessors were, and they refuse to engage in the rebels’ illegal activities.

“In our lives we have lost the privileges of an ordinary person,” the mayor of Arauquita told Open Doors. “Now we are military targets. God brought me here, but sometimes I have wished not to continue, because being a Christian in a context like this where we live has a very high price.”

Last year, he added, guerrillas killed seven Christians in Arauca department. “Some of them were public officials, others were leaders or simply people recognized by their testimony as believers in Christ,” he said.

Open Doors reported that Councilman Francisco Delgadillo, a Christian who had received threats from the ELN guerrillas, was killed as he returned to his home on Feb. 15.


FARC Territory

Across the river, Venezuela serves as a safe haven for the ELN, which the U.S. Department of State has designated as a terrorist group. With the approval of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the guerrilla forces use the country as a base from which to move into Colombia’s oil-rich Arauca department.

Although the ELN has been at odds with the Marxist FARC, in Arauca the two rebel groups co-exist without conflict; from their bases in Venezuela, according to Open Doors, the two groups amicably share paths and roads.

FARC guerrillas control the southwestern department of Huila, where last November four Christians were killed. Open Doors reported that all four belonged to the Alianza Cristiana church of Santana Ramos. Farley Cortés was killed on Nov. 5 in Plumeros village, Hermes Coronado Granado was killed on Nov. 8 in Santana Ramos, and 10 days later a married couple, Dora Lilia Saavedra and Ferney Ledezma, were also killed there.

Guerrillas seized Saavedra, 40, and the 35-year-old Ledezma from the school where Saavedra taught on Nov. 18, bound them on the floor of an old house and shot them several times. The FARC guerrillas had taken their three children, ages 3, 5 and 12, along with them and made them wait at a nearby house within hearing of the shots. The couple, married for five years, were known for proclaiming Christ in the village that borders the farm they owned.

Their pastor, Hernan Camacho, has moved with his family out of the area after receiving death threats.

The FARC accuses the families of Camacho, his brothers and Saavedra of refusing to follow its ideology, Pastor Camacho told Open Doors. “[The guerrillas] say that we, the evangelical ones, are their worst enemy because we teach the people not to take up weapons,” he said. “They accuse us of lulling the minds not to claim our rights against the government … the guerrillas say that it is our fault that the people prefer to continue with the church and not to join them.”

Motives for the killings are still under investigation, but Open Doors reported that Huila is in a zone historically known for systematic persecution of the church by guerrillas. In July 2007, pastor Jael Cruz García, 27, and another pastor, 63-year-old Humberto Méndez Montoya, were murdered in the village of La Legiosa in northern Huila. In 2002, two other pastors, Abelardo Londoño and Yesid Ruíz, were shot and killed in the same area.

Having lost three key leaders last year and been pushed out of most major urban centers by government forces, the FARC has embarked on a terror campaign to make its presence known in cities, according to The Christian Science Monitor. In the Huila capital of Neiva, on March 6 a bomb explosion damaged a hardware store and nearby businesses, according to the newspaper, and on Jan. 16 suspected FARC rebels were responsible for a car explosion at a shopping mall.

Report from Compass Direct News


Muslims’ legal action against 1,600-year-old structure called ‘malicious.’

ISTANBUL, January 22 (Compass Direct News) – Syriac Christians in southeastern Turkey say a land dispute over the historic Mor Gabriel Monastery is part of a larger system of discrimination against the religious minority in this overwhelmingly Islamic country.

Muslim residents of southeastern Turkey dispute the boundary lines of an ancient Christian monastery dating to the fourth century as being unnecessarily large for the needs of a religious community. Islamic village leaders from Yayvantepe, Eglence and Candarli are attempting to confiscate one-third of the monastery’s property, claiming it was wrongfully appropriated and that they need it for their livestock.

Area Muslims also say the land in question is forest and thereby registered as land belonging to the State Treasury.

“Our land is being occupied by the monastery,” said Ismail Erlal, village leader of Yayvantepe, according to Cihan News Agency. “We make use of the forest there and pasture our animals; we won’t give up our rights.”

Among the most contentious issues are the monastery walls built around its perimeter, rebuilt 15 years ago. Village leaders complain in a lawsuit to obtain the land that the monastery has gone beyond its rightful bounds. In August the land survey office of Midyat said it had determined that 270 hectares of the monastery’s 760 hectares were government property, including land inside and outside the monastery’s walls.

A court in Mardin originally scheduled a hearing for Friday (Jan. 16) to determine the legal status of the monastery walls, but it was rescheduled to Feb. 11 to allow the court more time to examine the case. At the February hearing the court will determine if the 270 hectares of land belong to the government or the monastery.

Metropolitan Timotheos Samuel Aktas, leader of the monastery, answered in a report that the monastery has the right to leave its land uncultivated and has paid taxes on the property since 1937.

The state originally charged the monastery with being founded illegally, but it dropped those charges by canceling a hearing originally schedule for Dec. 24. Rudi Sumer, the attorney representing the monastery, said that the claim was groundless since the monastery has foundation status dating back to modern Turkey’s origins, not to mention centuries of existence beforehand.

The mayors of Yayvantepe, Eglence and Candarli also charged the monastery with attempting to proselytize young children (illegal in Turkey) and carrying out “anti-Turkish” activity.

Metropolitan Aktas said in a report that these claims were groundless and of the same provocative nature that has historically sparked violence against Turkey’s Christians.

“All the allegations are frivolous and vexatious, devoid of any logic or evidence, solely aimed with the malicious intent of rousing anti-Christian sentiments by the surrounding Muslim villages,” he said.


Europe Watching

Mor Gabriel Monastery, founded in 397, is the most revered monastery for Syrian Orthodox Christians. It is inhabited by 15 nuns and two monks and is the seat of Metropolitan Bishop of Tur Abdin Diocese.

In recent decades the monastery has turned into a religious and social center for the country’s remaining Syriacs by offering schooling to children and teaching their ancient language of Syriac, a variant of the language spoken by Jesus.

“The monastery is everything for us,” said a Syrian Orthodox Christian who grew up in Turkey’s southeast. He added that many families in the area had named their children after Mor Gabriel. “Syriacs would give up everything for the monastery.”

An international outcry from the European Parliament and numerous Assyrian organizations throughout Europe arose in response to the charges, according to the Assyrian International News Agency. A member of the German consulate said his country would monitor the case closely, as Turkey is attempting to join the European Union and its human rights record has come under close scrutiny.

Many Syrian Orthodox Christians have left southeast Turkey in the last 30 years as violence escalated between the military and Kurdish terrorists. In the last five years, however, some Syriacs have begun returning home – only to find their property occupied by others.

Residents who fled Mardin province in the mid-1980s returned to find two of their village’s Syriac churches converted into mosques. And the demographic shift from Syriacs to Kurds has increased pressure on the monastery.

“Turkey must protect its Assyrian community,” said Swedish parliamentarian Yilmaz Kerim to the Hurriyet Daily News. He visited the monastery as part of a delegation in December. “There are only 3,000 left in Midyat.”

The lawsuit has the support of a local parliamentarian who claims Christians relished their opportunity to leave Turkey. Süleyman Çelebi, member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), said Syrian Orthodox Christians had never come under pressure, despite their claim that they were exploited, and even emigrated away from Turkey “with joy” in previous decades.

The three villages that brought the lawsuit against the monastery overwhelmingly supported the Islamic-rooted AKP in last year’s national elections. Çelebi claims that the official boundaries of the monastery were established in Ottoman times but not properly observed by the Syriac Christians.

According to the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, Turkey grants full protection to churches, synagogues and other religious establishments to freely practice their own religions. But this treaty only designated Greek and Armenian Orthodox Christians and Jews, creating complications for groups such as the Syrian Orthodox and Protestants to open schools and churches.

Syriac Christians claim to be one of the first people to accept Christianity in the Middle East. Their historic homeland stretches through southeastern Turkey, but their numbers have dwindled to 15,000 following decades of government pressure and fallout from war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.  

Report from Compass Direct News