Peter Stuckey, pastor, Mennonite Church
Witness for Peace came to Colombia initially through the sponsorship of the Mennonite Church. The Church also provides legal cover for WFP.
Paul Stuckey, director, JUSTAPAZ
Peter began by emphasizing that "Colombia is more than a society-at-war."
The Stuckey brothers' parents came to Colombia in 1945 under the auspices of the Mennonite Church to start a boarding school in a mountain valley for the healthy children of adults with leprosy, about an hour and a half from Bogotá. The school was sponsored by the American Leprosy Mission and the Mennonite Church. Peter and Paul were born and raised there.
Lepers were one of Colombia's notable outcast groups. So were day laborers, whose children also attended the school. There was also significant persecution aimed at Protestants (Masons, Communists, and Protestants were considered enemies of Colombia at the time). Protestant churches were burned, members were killed; and los desplezados, the people displaced by the decade of warfare between the Liberal and Conservative parties (La Violencia, 1948-1958) were another group. The work of the Mennonites began with the groups mentioned above, the most marginalized; this gave the Church a social vision and direction.
The Catholic Church has traditionally been part of the Colombian power structure and so has some difficulty sitting down to talk with Protestants. And Protestants have trust issues of their own with Catholics. But Paul emphasized that North American churches can play a positive role by encouraging all Colombian churches to work together.
Peter and Paul were born in Colombia but also spent time in the U.S. They were in the U.S. during the Vietnam War. The Vietnam and civil rights movements in the US were very formative and indicated another direction to move in: that of tying the 1st and 3rd world social justice movements together.
Their father died in Colombia in 1988, but their mother still lives here and, unlike many who have worked for justice in Colombia, has lived to see her work bear fruit.
The Mennonite Church works closely with the Commission of Human Rights and Peace in Colombia (CEDECOL), a project of the Evangelical Council of Colombia (Consejo Evangelico de Colombia). Most protestant churches here are conservative and evangelical. Many have been affected by the war; congregations have been displaced and pastors killed, 45 in the last 6 years (this doesnt include Catholic clergy). [notes indicate that the number 45 refers to the number of Mennonites killed since 1995 by various armed actors for various reasons.] "That," says Peter, "is a high percentage of martyrs. "
Many congregation members and church leaders have also been killed, especially in the countryside. The current situation has brought together social rights activists from various churches. "We work with the churches in the campo who are very isolated. We try to help them in the displacement and other difficult situations."
The town of Puerto Alvira in the Meta province, for example, was the site of a massive displacement of 2000 people, by the FARC, on barges the night before our meeting. Churches, of course, are affected by these events. War forces them to confront topics of peace and nonviolence previously overlooked. These experiences have moved them to open their discourse to include nonviolence, human rights, how to relate to armed actors, and how to care for the displaced. The Stuckeys try to support these churches and help with displacement.
"One role for us is to keep our vision clear about society," says Peter. "Where are we going? Whats going on? What's God doing in our world?" He goes on to quote Micah 4, which describes the people asking to be taught about Gods ways and a time when swords will be beaten into plowshares; also, that God will arbitrate between strong and weak nations.
The Stuckeys: In the midst of a war situation people call for more war, more violence. As a church we have to affirm that peace is the will of God, not war. Arms should disappear; production should be for the well being of the people.
And you dont have to be a big majority to make a difference. In the 1980s, no one was talking about peace, about nonviolence. We began working on conscientious objection to military service. We declared that peace would come to Colombia through instruments of peace. The idea caught on like wildfire. Conscientious objection was brought before the Constitutional Assembly; the President talked about conscientious objection before the School of War.
All the people that are killed are killed by arms. We maintain a clear line on nonviolence.
Paul Stuckey introduced JUSTAPAZ.
It becomes very difficult to be seen as neutral in this war, especially in paramilitary-controlled towns. Listen carefully to discussions about human rights and international humanitarian law. It all has to do with civilian populations.
JUSTAPAZ is a project begun ten years ago to respond to all the violence. It consists of only 15 to 20 people. Its been involved with conscientious objection from the beginning. Its work is twofold: institutional work with legislation, and through street protests. According to the Constitution, public demonstrations and lobbying should be allowed, but its difficult.
The Colombian Constitution says that citizens dont have to act against their consciences. But it also says they are obligated to defend their country. Recruitment is not only done by the armed forces but by the guerrillas and the paramilitaries, through a process of seduction. Unemployment is high; these groups will pay 2-3 times the minimum wage ($200-$300 per month) and offer to feed recruits' families. The Colombian Army recently agreed to stop recruiting children under 18, but they use this age group as messengers, guides, etc.
JUSTAPAZ promotes conscientious objection, and tells kids they have alternatives to joining the armed groups. It offers nonviolence training in schools. It also offers alternative forms of justice, such as mediation and conflict resolution. Its very common to take justice into one's own hands in Colombia, often through violence; the justice system is clogged and corrupt. 85% of violent deaths are non-political. A peace settlement would leave this. 97% of cases that go to court never get resolved. So people take justice into their own hands.
The group is also working to develop a peace infrastructure. It works with local churches to be centers of peace in their communities; to teach nonviolence; and to respond to displacement and threatened people by offering themselves as sanctuaries.
Additional work includes collaboration with the Permanent Assembly of Civil Societies for Peace to create an active role for civil societies in the peace process, and to overcome the differences of the various groups working toward peaceful resolution; and with the National Peace Council, a government-created body consisting of two-thirds government representatives and one-third non-government organizations.
"Civil society" is singular. Its a collective term referring to all organized groups that are not part of government or armed actors. Pastranas talks with FARC and ELN left out civil society. Both sides were not interested.
"Build infrastructure for peace": the following things that JUSTPAZ is involved with:
1. Permanent Assembly of Civil Society for Peace.
2. Comité de Enlace, a networking of civil society to work together.
3. National Peace Council.
4. Take initiatives with armed groups to attempt to understand and be understood.
5. International: Internationals have a role to play with helping the civil society groups.
6. Protection - Lasos Visibles. Create links church-to-church, school-to-school, union-to-union, etc. (e.g., sistering). "We" work with the Coordinación Colombia Europa y Estados Unidos.
In answer to a question, they confirmed that the U.S. part of this is the U.S./Colombia Coordinating Office, which is a project of the Colombia Human Rights Network and shares its office space in Washington, DC. In conversation after the meeting, they told me they are good friends of Barbara Gerlach, who is active in the CHRN. "We" work with the United Nations, civil society, etc.
The Stuckeys discussed their security concerns. Theres a societal danger. Its not specifically us. "Its like being in a pressure cooker," says Peter. "We" arent alone. We have a community to give us support.
Q: How do you reach out proactively to armed groups?
A: Its a process that happens. Were proactive mainly through CEDECOL. It was easy to meet with the FARC during the period of the demilitarized zone. Now it's much more difficult. We listen to them and interpret our position as churches to them. We bring up our concerns about pastors in danger; we ask them what we should do.
The Mennonite Church has had much contact with the ELN, and limited contact with the paramilitaries. But, notes Peter, It's important to maintain open lines of communication. We can meet with the ELN in prison. With the paramilitaries, we go to their areas. Anybody can meet with them. Yet the government cant capture them. We ask for explanations when something happens.
Q: Problems we should address?
A: He urges that people in the US work for drug legalization. If the hypocrisy which infuses the drug war were removed, a lot would be solved. He also urges that the US be held to human rights certification requirements (outlines in the Leahy amendment). Finally, the policies of the IMF and World Bank have been terribly damaging all over Latin America.
The farm bill in the U.S. is a terrible problem. Subsidized U.S. farms bankrupt small farmers in Colombia.
Q: Correlation between U.S. militarization and increased violence?
A: During 3 years of peace talks, theres been no change. During those 3 years, the U.S. was notably absent. The United States was not part of the Group of Friendly Nations [The Group of Friendly nations facilitated the talks]. Big changes to society are needed. There is escalation instead. U.S. is part of the escalation. They choose escalation as the route to solve the problems. The peace talks have been either incredibly naive or incredibly cynical. We're afraid that the country will be destroyed before people in the establishment realize that another method is necessary.
The paramilitaries are killing more than before. But now they are selective killings rather than massacres.
Q: If you arent pro-FARC, do the FARC accuse you of being against them?
A: It varies a lot, but in general, yes.
Paul: Uribe and Bush seem to have the same approach: "Round up the usual suspects."
Peter: The churches have a project as a counterweight. Its to have a million artisans for peace and life [a response to Uribes million spies.] At this stage, its mainly the Mennonite church thats promoting this idea.
The US, they say, has been placing all its bets on the military. But they urge us to take a look at the civilian population of Colombia as a source of hope. There's a lot of creativity and commitment there.