A Colombian teenager who was moved to a safe house by a Christian ministry after experiencing persecution at the hands of a local indigenous people group says she fears for her family's safety amid threats of violence.
Open Doors USA, a nongovernment organization that monitors Christian persecution in over 60 countries, posted an entry and video on its website last week documenting the story of a 15-year-old Christian girl named Valentina.
Valentina is originally from the autonomous region of Cauca in southwestern Colombia, home to many of the self-governing indigenous Páez community. But now, Valentina lives in a safe house elsewhere in the South American country after being forced to flee her village because of her faith in Jesus Christ.
The Páez community largely follows a faith that's a mixture of traditional shamanistic practices and Roman Catholicism. According to Open Doors USA, some in the Páez community are tied to guerrilla groups and the drug industry, seeking to recruit young people to help them hold territory in these autonomous regions.
Christians who do not follow their brand of indigenous faith are targeted for persecution and oppression. Like other Christian students, Valentina was discriminated against at school, which gives instruction in rituals that go against her faith.
A group of Christians in the village, including her father, asked for an exemption from the non-Christian instruction for Valentina or permission to start a new school. However, the permission was denied, and horrific threats were issued to the family by local guerrilla groups.
"I felt I had no freedom, and I always wanted to leave — to get out," she said.
Valentina, who lives in the Children's Center in Colombia, a place of refuge supported by Open Doors, is currently safe. But she remains extremely worried about her family. She fears her father could end up in jail and her sister could be recruited by guerillas or raped.
"Sometimes, I'm afraid, and I tell my mother: 'Don't leave my sister alone,'" she is quoted as saying. "We've had various threats against members of my family, and one of those is with my sister. I would be afraid that all of a sudden she would … be abused because that's one of the threats we've received."
Nowadays, Valentina only sees her family once a year, on Christmas, as their lack of financial resources makes it harder to see each other more often, given the long journey.
"For me, the best Christmas is when I'm with my family," she says.
Despite a large Christian population, Colombia ranks as the 30th worst country globally when it comes to Christian persecution on Open Doors' annual World Watch List.
"Guerrilla groups threaten, harass, extort and even murder church leaders, who are targeted because they denounce corruption, defend human rights and oppose cartels," noted the WWL. "Their children may also be targeted, to discourage church leaders from speaking out against organized crime and corruption."
In Colombia's indigenous communities, the persecution tends to focus on Christians who have converted away from the local beliefs of the tribe, Open Doors explains in a factsheet.
"These Christians face imprisonment, harassment, physical abuse, denial of basic rights and use of their ancestral territory, or being sent away to do forced labour in a different territory, among other forms of persecution," the factsheet states.
"Often they are targeted to make an example of them, so that the rest of the community is deterred from conversion."
In 2018, the United Kingdom-based group watchdog Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported that 12.6% of all religious leaders in Bogotá had received death threats, mainly from leftist guerrilla groups, right-wing neo-paramilitary groups and other criminal entities.
A Christian woman, Pastora Mira Garcia, who in September 2017 was chosen to speak before Pope Francis during his visit to Colombia, revealed in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need that she had lost much of her family in the country's guerrilla war, where hundreds of thousands of people have died.
Despite so much devastation and suffering in her family, Garcia found it in her heart to forgive and take care of the murderers when she found them on different occasions.
The Voice of the Martyrs, another watchdog group, explains that after voters in Colombia rejected a 2016 peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a Marxist rebel group, the government approved an agreement with the insurgents a year later without public approval.
"Since the agreement, various paramilitary groups in rural areas of the north and west have grown more active and violent," cautioned VOM.