Memorandum of Conversation, by Maurice M. Bernbaum of the Office of South American Affairs



  • Protestant Difficulties in Colombia
  • Participants: Sr. don Cipriano Restrepo-Jaramillo, Colombian Ambassador
  • Sr. don José María Bernal, Colombian Minister of War
  • UNA—Mr. John Hickerson, Assistant Secretary
  • ARA—Mr. Edward G. Miller, Jr., Assistant Secretary
  • OSA—Mr. W. Tapley Bennett, Deputy Director
  • OSA—Mr. Maurice M. Bernbaum, Officer in Charge, NWC

The difficulties being experienced by Protestant Missionaries in Colombia were discussed at a luncheon held today at the Colombian Embassy.

The subject was raised by Dr. Bernal in connection with his description of current guerrilla activities (see memorandum of conversation of same date1). He stated that the difficulties now being experienced by the Protestants were to a very considerable extent related to civil unrest. As in the case of the guerrillas who were being incited by the Communists for the purpose of fomenting disorder, the Communists were taking advantage of antagonism between the Catholics and Protestants for the same purpose. Dr. Bernal went so far as to state that most of the atrocities being committed against the Protestants were Communist-inspired. He immediately back tracked, however, when queried as to whether the Priests who had reportedly led the mob action against the Baptist Church in Bogota of last December were Communists. He admitted that these as well as many other Priests in Colombia were fanatically opposed to the Protestants and often went out of their way to oppose them. He emphasized, however, that such activities were in no way a reflection of either church or government policy. When asked regarding the prospects of a solution to the Protestant problem, Dr. Bernal responded that the prospects were indeed good. He felt, however, that since the difficulties being experienced by them were so closely related to civil strife the solution to their difficulties would be dependent upon the ability of the Government to suppress guerrilla activities. When this objective was achieved, he stated that the Protestants would have nothing to fear.

The foregoing was to a large extent contradicted, however, by the Ambassador, who entered the conversation with the statement that the [Page 777] Protestant Missionaries could not legitimately expect to operate unmolested in a predominately Catholic country. He stated that regardless of the attitude of the Government, it would be impossible for anybody to insure immunity for Protestant Missionary activities in out-of-the-way parts of the country. He then drew a parallel with the southern part of the United States, particularly the bombings of Catholic Churches which had taken place during the last year in the state of Florida. He then inquired regarding the treatment to be expected by Catholic Missionaries in small, predominately Protestant communities.

Mr. Miller remarked at this point that the treatment accorded Catholic Missionaries in the U.S. could hardly be compared with that being experienced by Protestant Missionaries in Colombia. He remarked that of all Churches, the Catholic was one which had the greatest stake in the concept of the freedom of religion in view of its extensive missionary interests all over the world. He pointed out that Catholic Missionary activities were most intensive in the Far East and Near East amongst the predominately Moslem and Hindu populations. He then went on to say that the Department held no brief for any particular missionary activity and had, as a matter of fact, been instrumental in securing the admission into Guatemala of a representative of the Catholic Maryknoll Order.

Mr. Miller went on to say that the Protestant Missionary problem in Colombia was a matter of increasing concern to the Department, which had been experiencing considerable pressure from Members of Congress as well as private individuals from all parts of the country. While realizing the problems being faced by the Colombian Government, he expressed the hope that something could be done to eliminate this most unfortunate irritant in the relations between the two countries.

Obviously uncomfortable, the Colombian Ambassador reaffirmed the impracticability of expecting the Protestants to be immune from opposition, particularly in a Catholic country undergoing civil strife. He added, in response to Mr. Miller’s statement regarding Catholic Missionary activities, that he did not believe there were any Colombian Catholic Missionaries in the United States requiring protection. He then laughingly remarked that he was probably in receipt of as many letters of complaint as was the Department. He attributed this to the recent propaganda campaign of the Presbyterian Life which was making a special point of stimulating protests.

Although the conversation terminated amicably, it had been made clear to the Colombian Ambassador and to the Minister of War that the Protestant Missionary problem was a most important factor in Departmental thinking regarding US relations with Colombia.

  1. Supra.