Colombia might not seem to be a poster child for success in peacebuilding. Civil war has persisted there for four decades. Over three million people have been displaced from their homes, making Colombia the second worst country in the world for internally displaced people (behind Sudan), according to Refugees International. Colombia regularly registers over 1,000 battle deaths a year, consistently earning a place on the list of major armed conflicts compiled by Swedens Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Yet despite the endurance of the conflict, there are signs of hope. The Catholic Church works to build peace in Colombia in a variety of ways. The church has been active behind the scenes working directly with the combatants, negotiating between the government and the armed factions and negotiating with armed militias for the release of hostages. The church also works extensively with noncombatants, helping those displaced from their homes by the violence and building schools of peace to conduct peace education to stop cycles of violence from continuing to future generations. Over 13,000 civic leaders have been trained in these. The work is dangerous, and religious and lay personnel are sometimes captured or killed. (Because of security concerns, publication of this column was delayed until after the conference concluded.) But in Colombia and internationally, the church cannot stay on the sidelines of conflict. Over 90 percent of Colombians are at least nominally Catholic, and surveys show Colombians trust the church more than any other national institution. So the churchs peacebuilding work goes forward, bearing fruit from the grass roots up.
Ten years ago, for example, little attention was given to the problems of internally displaced persons in Colombia, according to Msgr. Hector Fabio, director of the National Social Pastoral Secretariat of the Colombian Bishops Conference and Caritas Colombiana. The Colombian Conference of Bishops conducted a landmark study that called for sustained public attention to the problems of the victims of conflict. Since then, national and United Nations organizations routinely monitor the problem, and the law has been changed to provide for government attention to the needs of the internally displaced. Problems persist. Conference participants visited sites around Bogotá, where church and civil society groups minister to the continued needs of Colombias internally displaced. But the church plays an important role in advocating for and accompanying these most vulnerable people.
Monsignor Fabio sees hope in the churchs peacebuilding activities. I get the sense that people outside see Colombia as a complete catastrophe.... Those of us in Colombia see the hope in what is happening. We believe peace is possible.... You have to believe that it is possible to resolve conflicts in this world without violence. The world does not need anyone to inject war into every conflict. Instead, in these difficult situations, we need people to inject hope, build bridges and create reconciliation....We need to globalize hope. For hope to be possible, it must be a reality for all of humanity, rather than confined to people in a few safe countries. Our only option is to consider ourselves part of the human family.... Colombia is a large school, constantly learning from experiences and peace proposals that are born from the base.... Reconciliation cannot wait until the fighting stops. There is much light and reason for hope amid the darkness and despair of conflict.
From Northern Ireland to Uganda, the Catholic Church is working to build peace in areas of conflict around the world. The Catholic Peacebuilding Network is an effort to share and learn from these experiences, in order to strengthen global solidarity and enhance the churchs ability to build peace. The network is a voluntary group of peacebuilders, clergy, laity, academics and practitioners, who convene regularly, in person and virtually (http://cpn.nd.edu), to share lessons learned and best practices from the churchs wide experience in peacebuilding. Archbishop Rubén Salazar Gómez of Colombia notes: This international conference on Catholic peacebuilding has opened our eyes to the churchs peacebuilding role in other countries. After so many years of conflict, it is easy to lose hope; this weeks events have strengthened our spirit, for we do not feel alone. The Catholic Peacebuilding Network is one means not only to globalize hope and solidarity, but also to put them into practice.