Global Christian body calls for Colombia churches leaders' protection

(Photo: REUTERS / Defensoria del Pueblo / Handout via Reuters)Colombian soldier Carlos Fabian Huertas (2nd R) stands near representatives from the Commission of the Ombudsman, the ICRC and the Catholic Church in Arauca July 4, 2013, in this picture provided by the Defensoria del Pueblo. Huertas was kidnapped in Chitaga, Norte de Santander, on May 23 during an attack on a patrol by the ELN guerrillas which killed 10 soldiers.

A paramilitary group in Colombia has made serious death threats to human rights defenders, many of them church leaders, says the World Council of Churches which is urging the government to protect them.

The WCC said in a statement the call to the Colombian government to protect their lives was also made by other international organizations.

On January 14, 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 named in a list issued by the Aguilas Negras, a paramilitary organization.

The message was posted online and 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; Father Fernando Sanchez from the Anglican Church in the Caribbean Coast; Jairo Barriga, German Zarate, Rev. Milton Mejia of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia and Father 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 Juan Manuel Santos Calderón, issued on 29 January, Lemopoulos said, "They are known for their outstanding Christian commitment and courageous witness in the struggle for life, peace, justice and human dignity in Colombia."

He described it as "very disturbing" that church leaders and activists engaged in the promotion of human rights and peace had themselves become targets of violence.

The WCW leader also raised concern that such threats would impede the work of human rights defenders by creating "a widespread climate of fear."

The WCC said that in solidarity with the churches and civil society in Colombia, it has called on the Colombian government "to take all necessary measures to effectively protect the life and physical integrity of the church leaders.

It has also urged the same for 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.

It said the government should be mindful of its obligations regarding the security and protection of those working for the defence of human rights.

In the light of this it should, "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."

The WCC which aims to promote Church unity and has some 500 million Christians belonging to it has been supported churches and people in Colombia in their struggle to end the country's armed conflict.

It 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.

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