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Columbia accused of religious freedom violations

by Desmond Busteed

Human rights campaigner Rincon Alonso from justice organisation Justapaz presented a report to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom outlining five categories of religious freedom violations, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

The first two thematic areas are the extortion of pastors and churches, and assassinations of and threats against religious leaders, mostly carried out by neo-paramilitary organisations.

Ms Alonso also raised the severe restrictions on or prohibitions of religious activity imposed by illegal armed groups, highlighting the case of Putumayo where the FARC (a left-wing guerrilla group) have prohibited any religious activity in rural areas. Earlier this year, two pastors from the United Pentecostal Denomination of Colombia were murdered by the guerrillas.

It's claimed the killings have been mostly carried out by neo-paramilitary organisations.

Jhonatan Vargas, a university student and active member of the Foursquare Gospel Church in Barrancabermeja, gave his personal testimony of the fourth category of religious freedom violations. After declaring himself a conscientious objector, Vargas was forcibly inducted into the military and held for three months.

He opted not to return after being granted a leave of absence and the military filed charges of desertion against him. His case reached Colombian's highest court, the Constitutional Court, but in September he was imprisoned and the military moved to bring him to trial.

Fifteen days after his imprisonment, the Constitutional Court upheld his right to conscientious objection and he was released.

Vargas told US policy makers that he had been lucky to have the support of national and international organisations but that he saw many others in the same situation during his time in the military.

He asked that the US put pressure on the Colombian government to ensure that the military takes concrete steps to uphold and raise awareness of the right to conscientious objection within its ranks.

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