Christians in the indigenous territories of Colombia

The severe situation of Christians in the indigenous territories of Colombia needs to be highlighted as a hotbed of persecution. According to a 2005 census, more than 1.3 million Colombians (3.4 per cent of the country’s total population) identify as indigenas, the country’s original population. There are more than 30 autonomous indigenous territories throughout the whole country, mostly located around the green valleys of the Andes mountains. According to some estimates, around 30 per cent of the total indigenous population is Christian, either Catholic or Protestant (400,000), and that around 40 per cent of them face persecution in some form (165,000).

The main persecution engine affecting indigenous Christians in Colombia, however, is Tribal antagonism, through which indigenous converts to Christianity are particularly vulnerable to suffer persecution. Ethnic group leaders, especially when in control of local government, in combination with extended family drive this engine.

Elements of context

Indigenous territories in Colombia are protected by a constitutional law that gives them autonomy. The legal situation of indigenous territories prohibits intervention from the State’s judiciary system or security forces. As a consequence, any crime against Christians (such as lands being occupied) is likely to be left unpunished. Because Christians are seen as a threat to the perpetuation of the indigenous culture and traditions, the rural Christian indigenous population of a number of autonomous territories of Colombia is victim of hostilities. Conversion of indigenas to Christianity often has a power dimension, as it erodes the power basis of traditional indigenous leaders. When Christian parents take their children out of indigenous schools, these schools receive less funding from the government, which represents a major income reduction for the indigenous governments. This all accounts for an enormous pressure in the community sphere.

Squeeze and smash

Indigenous converts to Christianity face a combination of pressure (squeeze) and violence (smash). They suffer all sorts of harassment, exclusion from basic social services, torture and even displacement. For example, Ana Silvia is a teacher and has set up Christian schools several times in indigenous communities. Time and time again, the schools were attacked and burnt on the instigation of indigenous leaders. Ana Silvia has been attacked and tortured several times herself. One time, guerillas stormed into her class room and took children to recruit them for their groups. Indigenous leaders had given them permission to do that. Ana Silvia never saw those children again. Nevertheless, she never gives up and always starts with setting up another school.

In the course of 2014, about 600 indigenous Christians were displaced from their homes – several of them imprisoned and tortured – with support from local authorities. Two churches were also destroyed in 2014.

Future outlook

The autonomy of the indigenous territories, which makes them a state within the state, is not likely to be abolished as it is set in the Constitution. What seems positive on paper – giving the indigenous communities the right to administer themselves – is in practice highly anti-democratic because it gives traditional indigenous rulers unlimited power in their territories. For this reason, the position of indigenous Christians will remain extremely difficult, as human rights cannot be enforced in the indigenous territories.

Dennis P. Petri
Dennis P. Petri is Director of Plataforma C, Platform for Christian Politics. A political scientist by training, he specializes in comparative politics with a specific interest in Latin America. He is currently working on a dissertation about religious freedom at VU University Amsterdam.

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