The Colombian Catholic Church facing Forced Displacement
The Catholic Church has been one of the pioneers in advocating for the rights of those displaced within the country. In 1996, the Colombian Bishops’ Conference (Conferencia Episcopal de Colombia, CEC) decided to launch a national and regional study to call public and government attention to the serious situation of the victims of the Colombian conflict.
Given this lack of literature on such a critical issue, the study was revolutionary. Since then, the problem of forced displacement has been monitored and analyzed by United Nations agencies and organizations of Colombian society. There is now a law that provides a framework for government assistance to the victims of displacement and a Constitutional Court resolution ordering that the urgent needs of this population be addressed immediately.
Ten years after this first study, the Conference of Bishops, through the National Social Ministry Secretariat, issued a new follow-up document: Challenges for Nation Building: The Country in the Face of Displacement, Armed Conflict and Humanitarian Crisis 1995-2005. In this document the Church updated its initial recommendations to the national government and the international community (Gaviria Henao, 2009).
The National Social Ministry Secretariat (Secretariado Nacional de Pastoral Social, SNPS) has an Information System on People Displaced by Violence in Colombia. This database consists of interviews of displaced persons about the greatest challenges they face and needs they have. The project publishes bulletins and case studies to increase awareness and knowledge about the situation of the displaced. The SNPS’s Human Mobility Program began and implements this project and Catholic Relief Services supports their work. The Church’s research shows ethnic minorities and women-headed households are most in need, and also highlights that the parties in this conflict should abide by humanitarian law principles (Gaviria Henao 2009).
The Church’s work in assisting victims is a result of a preferential option for the poor and most vulnerable, a central component of Catholic Social Teaching. Accompaniment by pastoral agents and organizations is the idea of “walking with” those who have suffered most. Being an active presence with individuals and communities allows for the exploration of possibilities together, empathy, healing and a search for alternatives to the cycle of violence. Accompaniment of displaced communities also helps prevent further forced displacement. The Church has developed databases on forced displacement and on the recovery of historical memory (TEVERE). She has also drawn on these experiences in advocacy designed to draw support for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) at the national and international level.
The Church’s success is reflected in the joint launch of an international ‘Peace is Possible’ campaign by the CEC and the Caritas network focusing on the national humanitarian crisis.
This helps the SNPS design and implement better pastoral intervention programs such as the “Church and Displaced Persons Encounter in Solidarity Program” to benefit the population and to reduce their risk of further displacement.
The Church implements national and international campaigns to advocate for the displaced population. One such campaign to increase understanding and solidarity is the Day of the Migrant. On the third Sunday of September, parishes across Colombia focus on the theme of migrants, the displaced and refugees to raise awareness of their plight. The CEC, in collaboration with Caritas Internationalis, launched the ‘Peace is Possible’ campaign to focus attention on the humanitarian crisis within Colombia. Work is also done with other grassroots organizations and with networks of victims for drafting and implementation of a law on forced displacement. This is part of a wide effort by the Church and non-governmental organizations to promote the respect of human rights for all Colombians. The 2003 National Social Ministry Secretariat and Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office’s “Report on the Human Rights Situation and International Humanitarian Law in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta” drew on the analysis of the Humanitarian Observation Commission, in which the Social Ministry as participant contributed to highlighting the steps that need to be taken to address the regional situation (Gaviria Henao, 2007).
Gaviria Henao, Mons. Hector. Lessons Learned in Peabuilding in Colombia: Reflections from the Perspective of the Social Ministry/Caritas Paper presented at the Fourth Annual International CPN Conference, June 24-29, in Bogotá, Colombia, 2007.
Gaviria Henao, Mons. Hector. 2009. Colombia: Building Peace in a Time of War,* edited by Virginia M. Bouvier. Washington D.C. United States Institute of Peace Press.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The State of the World’s Refugees: Human Displacement in the New Millennium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
United States Department of State, 2008 Human Rights Reports: Colombia, Washington, DC: Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, February 2009.