[Episcopal News Service] “Peace is not only the silence of guns and bombs; peace is much more than that … . It is rebuilding an entire social fabric that has been torn for more than 50 years. Peace is a fundamental right, and we have to rebuild it to guarantee a decent life [for people],” said Diocese of Colombia Bishop Francisco Duque in an interview with Episcopal News Service regarding the peace process that is developing in his country.
The Episcopal Church closely supports the peace process in Colombia. After a half-century of war and years of negotiations, the government and FARC, the Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, reached a peace agreement. On June 23, the two parties signed “a definitive agreement to a bilateral ceasefire, to laying down of arms and to guarantees of security.”
The agreement is an enormous step toward true peace, according to Duque, who, as head of the Episcopal Church in Colombia, has supported the dialogue process. “We have been very affected by the war; we have communities in conflict zones. But we don’t work just as the Episcopal Church; we work ecumenically with other churches. The principle of peace is also based on [having] a decent life. There’s a lot of work to do and we will only succeed united as brothers and sisters,” the bishop said.
(The Episcopal Diocese of Colombia is one of seven dioceses that make up the Episcopal Church’s ninth province, which covers Central and South America and the Caribbean.)
In May, the Episcopal Church agreed at a national convention to support the peace process, offering the government its facilities as “spaces for exercises in reconciliation to succeed in building a sustainable peace.” Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos expressed thanks for the support in an official letter.
Pastoral work in the midst of war
Although the church’s role in the peace process and support for the government was expressed more officially this year, its support for the people and communities has been present throughout the entire conflict, Duque said. The areas most affected by the war are home to four Episcopal parishes, served by two priests and five seminarians.
Rev. José Suárez is one of those priests. In 2008, he arrived with his wife and daughter in Palizada and El Bagre – a mountainous zone in northwest Colombia. His predecessor had been retired from the parish following a psychiatric crisis after 15 years of pastoral service. “He was institutionalized for almost a year [and] the church helped him to get a pension afterward. He lived under a lot of pressure and threats. … I agreed to come here because I was ordained for [serving] Jesus Christ and I go wherever they send me,” Suárez said.
But he realized in his first days of pastoral work that he would need a great deal of spiritual strength to carry out his job. One day, while he was traveling to a community in a canoe with some parishioners, he came upon a body floating in the middle of the river. His immediate reaction was to retrieve the body, call the authorities, and say a prayer for the deceased. But the reaction of his companions was different.
“They told me: ‘Father, don’t touch him. Let’s go. You don’t know what might happen if you take him out of the river. Here it’s better to keep quiet.’ Against all my beliefs, I had to listen to them; I just said a prayer as we continued on our way,” he recalled.
The region where Suárez works has many criminal groups. “Here you have to be careful about what you say and who you say it to. It’s almost impossible for a day to go by without someone being killed in the area.”
Duque recognizes that Suárez’s pastoral work is a service that requires a lot of courage and commitment. “We can’t give up preaching the Gospel or stop supporting our communities, regardless of the internal conflicts,” he said. “It’s up to us to work, with victims as well as with victimizers, and the church is ready to move forward. We’ve had parishioners massacred and many [others] displaced.”
According to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 6.9 million people in Colombia have been displaced due to violence. With the church’s support, Suárez has facilitated the migration of families for security reasons. The result for the families has been good, but the size of the religious community has decreased considerably due to the emigration.
“This is a mining area, very rich in metals; there’s a lot of gold extraction. But that doesn’t mean abundance for the people. … For different reasons people end up leaving,” said Suárez, adding that the Episcopal community in El Bagre, which used to have more than 100 people eight years ago, now has only around 50, while in Palizada, the congregation has only about 15.
Challenges for rebuilding the country
After decades of pain, the announcement of the definitive ceasefire has created many expectations. The Episcopal Church is celebrating the progress, but recognizes that facing the challenges of rebuilding the country and bringing social justice will be an arduous task.
The next step is for the population to confirm its support of the peace agreement. On July 18, the Constitutional Court of Colombia upheld the plebiscite that will allow Colombians to support or reject the process.
The church is prepared to advocate in the communities for “yes” on the referendum, said Duque.
“Not everyone is happy with the announced agreements. Nonetheless, we are supporting this plebiscite that is going to be held; we have offered that support and the government is aware that we (the different churches) have the structures and leaders capable of seeking reconciliation even in places where the state has no presence,” he said.
The points to work on, the bishop said, are the indemnification of victims and the pursuit of justice; the rebuilding of the country; and an effort to preserve the historical memory that will prevent the repetition of the atrocities of the war.
“We are asking the international community for a lot of prayers, so that all Colombians come out winning, in order that we achieve that peace that we need so badly. And we are also asking for international solidarity; due to the negatives of war, drug trafficking and violence there are very few partnerships with foreign dioceses. We are asking that they accompany us in this process,” said Duque.
The church considers the securing of peace to be social and pastoral work. The church already is working with Episcopal Relief and Development to offer micro loans to women heads of household in the conflict zones; these will generate means of earning an income, said the bishop. And Suárez, looking to the future, dares to dream of the type of projects that will bring opportunities for people to get ahead and have a decent life.
“There are many needs in health, education and housing. Rebuilding the lives of these people won’t be easy; but with spiritual and material support a lot can be achieved, though it will take many years,” Suárez said.
For now, the first step is the plebiscite. Once the government announces the date and publishes the final document of the agreement with the FARC, Colombians will have to vote yes or no on the agreement.
– Clara Villatoro is a journalist based in San Salvador, El Salvador.