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Lighting the path to peace in Colombia

Author: Arts and Letters


The 230-strong gathering of the Catholic Peacebuilding Network in June provided a boost to the Catholic Church in the war-weary nation of Colombia.

“After so many years of conflict, it is easy to lose hope,” said Archbishop Ruben Salazar Gomez, president of Caritas Colombiana, the co-sponsor and host of the conference. “This week’s events have strengthened our spirit, for we do not feel alone.”

At the conference, 10 Notre Dame faculty and staff joined 220 other scholars, church leaders, and clergy and lay peace practitioners from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the United States. Participants included 175 Colombians – among them 20 bishops – as well as 55 church leaders and specialists from 21 other countries.

Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, Kellogg Institute for International Studies and Center for Civil and Human Rights co-sponsored the conference.

The Catholic Church in Colombia plays an unusually prominent role in mediating the conflict – a long and brutal history of clashes among government, guerrilla and paramilitary and police forces.

Having acquired the trust of all sides, clergy facilitate negotiations in dangerous parts of the country. Women religious and priests risk their lives sustaining safe havens for children, for young people at high risk for recruitment by armed groups, and for women left terrified and homeless when their husbands and families were massacred. Lay parish ministers coordinate programs in trauma healing, hunger relief and micro-finance.

Conference participants spent two days visiting desperately poor and vulnerable parts of Bogota and Medellin, acquiring a deeper understanding of the root causes and consequences of Colombia’s conflict and experiencing first-hand the struggles and successes of peace builders in urban and rural areas.

These sites – largely populated by some of the 3.2 million people forced off their land in other parts of the country – provided a glimpse of the Western Hemisphere’s most serious humanitarian crisis. They also showcased a wide range of flourishing peace building projects – from “Peace and Reconciliation Schools,” to work training programs for women raising children on their own, to performances and art installations by youths in memory of the thousands of civilians killed in the conflict.

“Colombia is best known for its conflicts, but for the Church, it is a school of peace building,” said Monsignor Hector Fabio Henao, director of Caritas Colombiana and a keynote speaker. “We have learned that the Church must help Colombians understand that there are no easy, short-term solutions to the conflict, that reconciliation cannot wait until the fighting stops, and that there is much light and reason for hope amidst the darkness and despair of conflict.”

The conference covered a range of issues, from the Church’s role in the peace process and the need for justice and reparations for victims, to the challenge of creating a culture of reconciliation. Participants from the Philippines, Rwanda, East Timor and other conflict-ridden countries exchanged perspectives and best practices in peace building.

In a private session with 20 Colombian bishops on the final day, Scott Appleby, professor of history and John M. Regan Jr. Director of the Kroc Institute, made a presentation on recent efforts to enhance the study and practice of Catholic peace building.

John Paul Lederach, professor of international peace building at the Kroc Institute, who has served as a mediator in 25 countries and is well known for his work in Colombia, led a workshop on “Redefining Security” and was a co-moderator of the meeting with Colombian bishops. He also was honored one evening by the UN Development Program, at a launch for the Spanish version of his book “Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies.”

Douglass Cassel, professor of law and director of Notre Dame’s Center for Civil and Human Rights, was a presenter in a panel on “Transitional Justice and the Peace Process.”

Other presenters and moderators included Kroc alumnus Elias Omondi Opongo’04, a Jesuit priest and program director at the Jesuit Hakimani Center in Kenya, and Myla Leguro, former visiting fellow at the Kroc Institute, who is Peace and Reconciliation Manager for Catholic Relief Services in the Philippines.

On June 28, the fifth day of the conference, participants woke to tragic news: 11 lawmakers in southern Colombia – kidnapping victims who had been in captivity for the past five years – had been killed. Colombia’s largest guerilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC, made the announcement, claiming that the lawmakers had been killed in crossfire when an un-named military group had attempted to release them.

The news set a somber tone to the last day of the public conference, bringing the grim reality of violence even closer. The Colombian bishops and the Catholic Peacebuilding Network immediately held a press conference to condemn the killings and express support for the families. Colombia has faced 30,000 kidnapping since the mid-1980s, the highest rate in the world.

In addition to the private session with Colombian bishops, the final day of the conference included a meeting with civil society leaders from around Colombia.

Martha Ines Romero of Catholic Relief Services in Colombia said that peace in Colombia clearly requires the work of many people.

“This is not only an issue for parties who are fighting, but for Colombian society as a whole – the Catholic Church, other churches, civil society organizations, business organizations and local government,” she said. “Colombian participants and those communities visited by the international delegation now feel they are supported by many, many people who are walking with us on our path of peace from the Philippines, Cameroon, Myanmar, South Africa, the United States, Mxico, Per, Bolivia, Ecuador, Hait and elsewhere.”

Other sponsors of the conference included Catholic Relief Services and the Church in Latin America Program of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Boston College’s Center for Human Rights and International Justice and the United Nations Development Program also provided support.

The conference program, list of participants, papers presented at the conference, and video of the conference are posted on the CPN website:

Contact: Gerard Powers, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, 574-631-3765, .

Originally published by Joan Fallon at on July 19, 2007.