Churches play a key role as Colombia emerges from conflict, say peace envoys

(Photo: Gregoire de Fombelle/WCC)Juan Carlos Cuéllar, representative of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN).

Peace in Colombia has been a long time coming, Juan Carlos Cuéllar, representative of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), said at a World Council of Churches panel discussion titled "The things that make for peace in Colombia" on April 9.

Cuéllar was appointed as the ELN representative in the ongoing peace talks, emphasized that, for the ELN, churches have always had a fundamental importance in the work for peace.

ELN is one of the two main armed revolutionary groups involved in the Colombian conflict which began in 1964, the other being FARC.

"In the entire peace-building process, the churches have always been there as an ally, especially on humanitarian issues, because they are in the field," said Cuéllar.

In September 2023, the WCC, with the Colombian Episcopal Conference, the UN Mission in Colombia, and the Organization of American States, was appointed as a permanent accompanier for peace talks between the Colombian government and the Estado Mayor Central (EMC) FARC-EP group.

The WCC is also closely following the peace talks with the ELN and other armed groups in Colombia.

"It would be very hard if we did not have churches as a channel of communication. The churches have power in the community and direct communication with the community. We have been working with the WCC since 2015, and today, we would like to invite you to accompany us," said Cuéllar.

A second speaker, Philipp Lustenberger, Swiss government special envoy for the peace process in Colombia who co-heads its mediation programme, noted that there have been 9 million victims of violence in the Colombian conflict.

He added that since Colombia became mired in its decades-long armed conflict, the death toll is estimated at over 200,000, and almost 80 percent of those killed have been civilians.

"I would say that, in general, the churches are actors in the peace process. What we see is the Catholic Church working with the ecumenical movement," Lustenberger said.


Cuéllar also addressed how economic injustice is a major obstacle to a just and sustainable peace.

"The situation in the country is not only due to war but also to economic factors. Colombia is very centralised. Everything comes from the capital," said Cuéllar about his country, which has an area of 1.14 million square kilometres and has a population of around 50 million people.

"This economic model is not working in the same way as the situation with the military forces."

He said the violence doesn't only come from the country's armed forces and the ELN, and noted that Colombia has significant disparities of wealth between its elites and most of its people.


"We need an alliance with all parts of society in Colombia. We need a big national accord. To make it work, we must establish an accord with the enemies of peace—those who don't want to be involved," he said. ""There are many armed groups and violent groups in Colombia, and if you add drug trafficking, you get a very complicated situation."

He believes in looking for the root causes of Colombia's conflict. He shared his opinion that the violence in the South American country has never been solved because the solution has been sought through violence rather than addressing the fundamental issues.

"We are not going to negotiate amid a conflict because we believe violence will bring more violence. We need to make sure everything we decide is implemented."

But in working for peace, Cuéllar said, "We are very happy to work with the WCC, as well as the Protestant churches and the Catholic church in Colombia."

The discussion was chaired by Peter Prove, director of the WCC's Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. Other speakers included Mithra Akbari from Switzerland's Federal Department of Foreign Affairs Peace and Human Rights Division.

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