International observers are trying to provide a “protective presence” to vulnerable communities in Colombia. Photo:Agne Alminaite
An ecumenical project to document the plight of people in the violence-ridden Montes de Maria and San Onofre regions of Colombia is beginning to gain international attention.
Called the Program of Ecumenical Accompaniment in Colombia (PEAC), the project, coordinated by the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI), supported by the World Council of Churches (WCC), ACT Alliance and others, is based on a similar effort in the West Bank supporting Palestinians.
The concept of “ecumenical accompaniment” is to bring in international observers to a specific region to provide a “protective presence” to vulnerable communities and to monitor and report human rights abuses.
PEAC aims to support the communities affected by more than four decades of violence caused by land struggles and political instability.
In recent decades the country has witnessed nearly five million people being driven away from their lands, the WCC reports. At the same time, 2,520 cases of “forced disappearance,” by paramilitary groups were reported in 2009.
“Colombia is today a very dangerous place to act as a human rights advocate. All those who promote justice and struggle for rights end up becoming the targets. There is an industry of fear installed in the San Onofre,” says Milton Mejia, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, who has been actively involved in the development process of PEAC.
For Sergio Antonio Toscano-Bassa, one of the leaders of the 57-family Finca Alemania collective farm, ecumenical accompaniment has the potential to challenge the status-quo.
“We are always afraid. Therefore, the prospect of the arrival of people from the churches and people from abroad brings a bit of tranquility. It shows that we are not alone and completely isolated,” he said.
According to Zoraida Castillo, Lutheran World Relief program manager for Colombia, the developments around PEAC created “increased communication and interest to share experiences among organizations and churches.”
As part of the PEAC process, a joint visit to San Onofre was organized in December last year, involving church leaders from Methodist, Anglican and Presbyterian churches, as well as representatives of the ACT Colombia Forum.