The Ambassador in Colombia ( Waynick ) to the Department of State 1

No. 967


  • Our Policy With Respect to the Protestant Difficulties in Colombia

The present Ambassador for the United States in Colombia presented his credentials in August 1951. At that time I was advised that the most troublesome matter affecting our relations was the persecution of Protestants in this strongly Catholic country. Nearly two years have elapsed and I am unable to report basic improvement in the conditions which control the intolerance.

For what value it may be to the Department in current appraisal of the problem, I am attempting analysis of existing conditions and forwarding a brief review of the cases of persecution which have been the subject of protest by the Embassy during my stay in Colombia. We have had 11 of these cases and in a tabulation, which is made part of this despatch,2 I am indicating what they were and what was done about them. During the same period there have been many other instances of the persecution of Protestants but these have involved Colombians only, or other nationals than those of the United States.

I have felt that the Colombian Government has manifested an increased degree of concern over the cases we have protested, but [Page 797] evidence of this lies more in an abortive effort to establish a formula for religious peace and in prompter response to the Embassy Notes than in any substantial basic effort to change conditions, either by punishment of offenders or by efforts to reduce the incitation to persecution.

The agitation against Protestant missionaries and congregations by certain priests of the Catholic Church, in spoken and written word, continues unabated and the harsher efforts by provincial priests have met with no positive and effective condemnation by clerics in high position. On the contrary, the utterances of some of the more scholarly members of the Catholic hierarchy have appeared to be encouraging to the agitators. There is frequent repetition of the claim that the Catholic faith and the unity it provides is the foundation of Colombian solidarity and that the Protestants are enemies of the State as well as the one “true Church”. Much of the propaganda against the Protestants condemn them as political meddlers, and frequently they are denounced as Communists and supporters of the banditry which disturbs the public order.

It is important to recognize that some of the persecution is based in sincere belief of a portion of the priesthood that it is better for a Colombian to “go to the street of the prostitute” than to “go to the street of the Protestants”. The Catholic Church was established in Colombia by the Spanish conquerors and priests who came with them nearly a century before European colonization began in the United States. It was founded here by Catholics from a country that for nearly 800 years had struggled with the Moor and identified loyalty to the Church and the State as one and the same thing. They speak of the importance of their Catholic solidarity which they claim the Protestant infusion is endangering, while ignoring the fact that Catholics in various parts of Colombia are murdering each other, engaging in a species of civil war. Their scholars charge the recurrent wars of modern Europe to the schismatic effects of Protestantism and ignore the fact that their own country has been torn with even more constant warfare. Their conviction about the importance of supporting the Church is deep and a more positive policy with respect to the persecution than we have employed will be required to effect important change. A firmer policy would risk the loss of what good will we have in the country.

One inspiration for this present discussion of the problem is the fact that the Minister with whom I have dealt is now being replaced by a new appointee who comes fresh from his post as Ambassador to Spain where he consummated a treaty recently which emphasizes anew the kinship of Colombia with the old fatherland. That treaty pledges the [Page 798] two countries to guard each other against adverse publicity and even pledges the rewriting of text books where needed to promote the consciousness of common hispanidad. This new Minister, son of a poet of the city of Popayán, an ancient center of Catholic culture, is not likely to have any more friendly concern about the Protestant problem than the man whom he succeeds has. So a pertinent question exists for the Embassy and for the Department: Are we to continue treating these instances of persecution of Protestants only as protection cases when Americans or American property are involved, or is there a better and more basic approach with hope of success? Another question: Should a positive new effort be made before a new Constitution is promulgated?

Some months ago a native Colombian who is pastor of a well-attended Presbyterian church in Bogotá made the suggestion during a visit to the United States that we might employ economic sanctions to compel Colombia to honor some of the commitments she has made with respect to religious freedom. The fact of this suggestion got back to Colombia and President Roberto Urdaneta Arbelaez denounced this pastor as disloyal, during a personal conversation we had about the religious intolerance. The position of the Colombian Protestant pastor was that various forces are being applied in all parts of the world, including the United States, to make the people more self-conscious and concerned about injustice to minorities and he thought that we might use sanctions here if we really believed in the freedoms we have professed.

Our policy has been sufficiently tolerant of the crucifixion in Colombia of several of the freedoms to which we have dedicated our democracy and which we have supported in international convenants as to give rise to question among “liberal” Latin Americans as to whether we will risk anything important in times of peace to substantiate principles upon which we go to war. Many with whom I have talked who are most inclined to favor our brand of democracy accuse us of arming and supporting dictators in governments who show little respect for any one of the basic “Freedoms” we advocate. I have noted what seems a lessening of concern about our faith in the freedom of religion, the freedom of speech and press, and the freedom from fear. Perhaps there is a little increased emphasis for political purposes on “freedom from want”, as most of the governments trampling on other freedoms protest that they are concerned about lifting the, level of the well-being of the masses.

We have been pressing upon the Latin republics, where scant respect is shown these freedoms, both technical aid in their domestic economy and military aid. Even here, where opinion is vigorously suppressed when it is in opposition to the government, more than a hint of Liberal condemnation of this cooperation of ours is manifest. So [Page 799] even when we gain the support of a Latin government like that of Colombia for our international purposes, we run the risk of increasing the conviction among the people of the country who have the highest respect for our enunciated principles that our professions of faith are not to be construed as something for which we will take any considerable chances in countries with which we are at peace.

Very recently the head of the Catholic Church, in a public address, called for the marshalling of Christian forces for something like a Holy War. All comment upon that war cry here indicated that Christian is generally interpreted to mean the Catholic faith.

There may be some justification for the charge leveled against us that we have catered unduly to the Catholic majority in our relations with Latin America. We have sent into Latin countries some Catholic clerics whose lectures intended to promote better understanding between our country of religious freedom and a country like Colombia that may have had the opposite effect, and the feeling has grown in strong Catholic circles that there is no need of beng too tender with the schismatic “hill billy” cults of the United States where Catholicism is making headway against “heresy”. That is not conducive to conditions under which we may expect revision of the resolve of ruling forces of Colombia to maintain intact the “Holy Catholic Faith”, even with physical force, if necessary. Certainly no authoritative voice is raised in this country against the persecution of Protestants and when some Liberal newspaper, or individual, dares to advocate tolerance, that spokesman is bludgeoned into silence as hostile to the true Church and the “democratic” order of the nation.

We have been confronted for some time with a somewhat arrogant position of the Colombian Embassy in Washington with respect to the Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation, negotiated during the time when Dr. Eduardo Zuleta Angel was Colombian Ambassador to the United States. That Treaty has been awaiting confirmation by the Senate of the United States and the Senate of Colombia. Repeatedly, the Washington Embassy has informed the Department that there is no likelihood of the Treaty being confirmed in Colombia as written because of the fear that under its terms the Protestants would demand privileges. As Colombia gets ready to formulate a new Constitution, there is good reason to believe that the guarantees of religious freedom will be reduced and weakened at the instance of Catholic leadership. It seems probable that the new Constitution will spell out in clear terms the most repressive interpretation given to the present constitutional guarantees of religious liberty. It seems likely that the provision will be tolerance for worship behind closed doors by those who are not of the Catholic faith, and that that will be the extent of “religious freedom” under the law.

[Page 800]

In handling the overt cases of attacks on American nationals and property in the religious cases, I have seen no advantage to be gained by any procedure other than prompt protest and demand for protection and investigation of the charges of injustice. Great public disorder has afflicted the country during my presence here and I know that for every Protestant missionary, or Protestant, who has been attacked or killed, hundreds of other and frequently Catholic nationals of Colombia have died under circumstances of equal brutality. It would be extremely difficult for the government to give protection in all cases of violent outbreak even though it earnestly desired to do so.

Tolerance inspired by these special conditions has little bearing upon what should be our basic long-range policy with respect to our relations with nations which do not honor perhaps the most prized of the freedoms to which our own democracy is dedicated. Any stronger effort to affect the behavior of Colombia in the matter of religious freedom should be fashioned at a very high level. To put it another way, do we need to deliberate now whether we should be satisfied with a policy that regards these instances of attacks on our nationals and their rights as individual protection cases, or whether we are ready to be more positive in insistence upon religious liberty for which guarantees have been written in some of the recent charters for world-wide adherence?

Recently there has been a tendency in some quarters to hold that most of the intolerance here is directed against “Yankees” rather than against Protestant missionaries or Protestants. In my opinion, the element of truth in this is that more of the missionaries and missionary efforts originate in the United States than in other countries. Actually, the persecution seems to be no respecter of nationalism.

From time to time the concern about these matters has reached Protestant areas of the old world. The reports of persecution were discussed in the Dutch Parliament last year, and within the past month the matter has been brought up in the House of Commons in London. The incident that occasioned the comment in the Commons was an attack on a British Protestant missionary, Samuel Heap, who was operating in the Cundinamarca town of Ubaté. The new British Ambassador, R. Keith Jopson, told me that a Note of protest in the Heap case was sent to the Foreign Office of Colombia while he, the Ambassador, was waiting to present his credentials. He informed me that the Foreign Minister was reasonably prompt in promising full investigation and that “depositions are being taken” in the case. He has heard nothing further.

Ambassador Jopson advised me that his Foreign Office has communicated to him additional information about the English reaction to the [Page 801] persecution. He has been informed that further repercussions may be expected as the stir caused by the reference to the matter in the Commons was spreading and that the Protestant bodies were becoming more insistent on a firmer policy, looking to a basic assurance that religious freedom will be protected in Colombia where British nationals are concerned.

The Ambassador advised me that his Foreign Office, believing that nothing was to be gained by a vigorous change of policy, has been trying to treat each case as an ad hoc matter of protection, but advised the Ambassador that this position is going to be increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of a rising concern in England about the matter.

The Ambassador was wiring his Foreign Office which had suggested that he might want to discuss the matter fundamentally, not only with the Government but with the new Cardinal of Colombia, with a view to trying to promote a definite stand by the Catholic hierarchy against persecution. The British Ambassador was inclined to recommend that the approach to the hierarchy be made through the Vatican and the new Nuncio who is expected to report here in June. He stated to me that he wanted to add to his telegram that he recommended that any such approach be sought to be made jointly with the United States and he asked me if I had any objection to his making that recommendation, or saying that the U.S. Ambassador agreed with him. I suggested that he limit his reference to the statement that he had quoted to me, making it his recommendation, as I would wish to discuss more fully with him what fundamental approach might be made and how such an approach would be influenced and affected by the peculiar circumstances of public disorder existing in Colombia.

This despatch is little more than a review of former reports but it seems to me a desirable recapitulation in view not only of some suggestions made to the Department that we should be more positive here in support of the persecuted but of the suggestion that there may be more pressure soon from other nations, whose nationals are involved in instances of violence. The fact that most of the American missionaries with whom I have dealt express approval of the course the Embassy is following does not obscure the basic failure of policy to afford guarantees of protection.

No doubt, this country could be bludgeoned into an improved policy or into what would amount to a break with the United States by threat of economic sanctions. We buy most of Colombia’s coffee which is her principal export and a chief base of her economic life. There is an increased flow of investment capital from the United States here and an increased consciousness of the need for it. The country is taking intelligent [Page 802] advantage of our technical aid and of loans from U.S. banks. So we have the power to wreck the country economically but naturally it is a power we have no disposition to employ.

I have hoped that Colombia’s increasing pride in her international status would promote adulthood in observance of international codes which incorporate guarantees of religious freedom. The Embassy has sought to encourage a change of conditions by emphasizing the readiness of the United States to cooperate in the great potential development of Colombia. These efforts are inadequate to effect great or quick change. While I offer no definite recommendation based upon the facts discussed in this despatch, I point out that one possibility would be a conference of representatives of countries interested, with outstanding Colombian leaders of Church and State, with a view to a frank discussion of the terms under which non-Catholic religions can have their being in Colombia and of the conditions under which Protestant educational and religious institutions might exist in peace. I mention this as a possible device because of the fact that the new Constitution is to be expected in a reasonable time with new language bearing upon these issues. If such a conference were to be promoted, it should be after full discussion in the Department and overtures to certain Catholic leaders in the United States who might be influential in the matter.

Enclosed is the tabulation of the cases referred to at the beginning of this despatch.

Capus M. Waynick
  1. Drafted by Ambassador Waynick.
  2. Not printed.