Serious death threats to human rights defenders, many of them church leaders, have been made by a paramilitary group in Colombia. The World Council of Churches (WCC), among other international organizations has called on Colombian government to protect their lives.
On 14 January, the WCC’s Commission on International Affairs office received a message from the church leaders in Colombia regarding death threats hurled at them by a paramilitary group. The message stated that on 11 January, 39 human rights activists, renowned for their long time commitment and work on rights, land restitution and promotion of the peace process, were individually named in a list issued by the Aguilas Negras, a paramilitary organization, and was posted online, later reported by the Columbian newspaper El Heraldo.
The paramilitary group explicitly stated that those individuals are considered military targets, stating their intention to eliminate them.
Among the human rights activists mentioned, are also a number of prominent Colombian church leaders, such as Agustin Jimenez from the Mennonite Church Teusaquillo; Fr Fernando Sanchez from the Anglican Church in the Caribbean Coast; Jairo Barriga, German Zarate, Rev. Milton Mejia of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia and Fr Fernando Gary Martinez from the Roman Catholic Church.
“The Church representatives appearing in this list are highly respected members of the international ecumenical movement with whom WCC member churches have worked over the years,” said WCC’s acting general secretary Georges Lemopoulos, in a letter addressed to the Colombian President Dr Juan Manuel Santos Calderón, issued on 29 January.
“They are known for their outstanding Christian commitment and courageous witness in the struggle for life, peace, justice and human dignity in Colombia,” said Lemopoulos.
He described as “very disturbing” the fact that church leaders and activists engaged in the promotion of human rights and peace have themselves become targets of violence. He also raised concern that such threats would impede the work of human rights defenders by creating “a widespread climate of fear.”
The WCC, in solidarity with the churches and civil society in Colombia, has called on the Colombian government “to take all necessary measures to effectively protect the life and physical integrity of the Church leaders mentioned above as well as of all other human rights defenders under threat; to carry out an independent and impartial investigation into the authors of these threats with due trial and appropriate penalties; to be mindful of its obligations with respect to the security and protection of those working for the defence of human rights, and in the light of this, to take the immediate and effective measures necessary to ensure that these Church leaders and human rights advocates can continue their work of defending human rights and human dignity, without danger and stigmatization.”
Over a number of years, the WCC has been accompanying churches and people in Colombia in their struggle to end the armed conflict. The Council has organized solidarity visits in the country, and its governing bodies have issued public statements denouncing the human rights violations, calling for an end to the armed conflict and applauding steps toward peace talks.