Memorandum by Albert H. Gerberich of the Office of South American Affairs to the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (Cabot)



  • Briefing memo on Protestant situation in Colombia; recommendations.

Since the coup d’état of June 13 incidents of violence against Protestants in Colombia have virtually ceased (there has been one against a British missionary, but I have heard of none against any American.) In this respect the Rojas Government has brought about a healthy improvement in the situation, and one that had been devoutly wished for.

The Rojas Government has taken one step, however, that is fraught with danger not only to the Protestants in Colombia, but to the existence of religious freedom in that country. On September 3 the Secretary General of the Ministry of Government published a circular to all departmental and territorial governors, informing them that no “Protestant pastors or missionaries” were in the future to be permitted to carry out their religious functions in those parts of Colombia classed as “Mission Territory” in the Concordat with the Vatican. The term “Mission Territory” was redefined on January 28, 1953, by the “Convenio de Misiones” with the Vatican in such a manner that it takes in more than half of the territory of Colombia and affects the largest Protestant congregation in the country (at Barranca Bermeja), as well as the San Andres y Providencia Archipelago, where over 90% of the population is, and always has been, Protestant.

The inclination of both the Embassy and the Protestants at first was to wait and see whether the Government would actually enforce the terms of the Ministry of Government’s circular. Many are of the opinion that President Rojas had nothing to do with the circular, that it was promulgated at the instance of extremists in the Church, and that he does not approve of it. Certainly his statement to Mr. Barber1 on October 23, that he had “every belief that there could be a friendly resolution of the problem” points in that direction.

Nevertheless, in the last few weeks notice has been served on American Protestant missionaries at Istmina and Noanamá in the Chocó (Mennonite), at Barranca Bermeja in Santander (GMU), and at Leticia on the Amazon (Baptist), that they shall abandon their missions and cease their activities. In the two Chocó towns there was an actual order of explusion; in the Leticia case the authorities sealed up [Page 806] the Baptist Church; in the Barranca Bermeja case the local alcalde permitted the church to remain open but forbade public proselytizing.

The Embassy has protested the Chocó and Leticia cases and the attached telegram2 gives the latest ruling by the Foreign Office: (1) the Chocó cases have been referred back to the Governor of that Department and meanwhile the order of expulsion is suspended; (2) pastors may hold services indoors but may not propagandize or proselyte. My information (from the National Association of Evangelicals) agrees with the Embassy’s statement that the Protestants will accept the terms under (2) above, as a last resort, in order to remain in those areas till better days.

The Embassy urges that this issue be taken up with Foreign Minister Sourdis3 while he is in Washington, and I would indorse that recommendation. Our Embassy people have not discussed this problem directly with Dr. Sourdis. The British Ambassador raised the question with Sourdis, according to Embassy Bogotá, but received a pretty cold response. I would suggest that if such talks fail, we should seriously consider a joint approach to the Colombian Government with Great Britain, Canada, Switzerland, Holland, and Sweden, all of whom are interested in the problem, as they have nationals who are missionaries there.4 We have never had a satisfactory reply to any of our twelve notes of protest on incidents of religious persecution involving Americans in the last two years. The British Embassy has had the same experience.

If the circular of the Ministry of Government stands, Protestantism is practically proscribed in more than half the territory of Colombia. Colombian citizens who are Protestant pastors may no longer carry on public worship; Colombians who are Protestant laymen will find no place in which to worship. This last telegram even hints that permission may be refused to Protestants to attend Protestant services, which would be a violation of the ideal of religious freedom unique in this hemisphere, so far as my knowledge goes.

There is attached a sheet5 giving some statistics on Protestant missions in Colombia and some facts on churches located in what is now known as “Mission Territory” and thus threatened with closure in light of the recent circular. In my opinion this list of 37 churches and chapels, which I have put together after consulting the best sources [Page 807] available, does not contain all of them. I am also unable to say positively what their total value is or how many of them are owned by the local congregations rather than the U.S. I have the figures for Istmina and Noanamá, where the missionaries have been ordered to get out.

There is also attached a copy of the wording of the first paragraph of Article XIV of our Treaty of 1846 with Colombia,6 which guarantees freedom of worship and freedom from annoyance on account of one’s religious belief.7

  1. Willard F. Barber, Chargé d’Affaires, U.S. Embassy, Bogotá.
  2. No telegram was found attached to the source text; presumably a reference to telegram 167, from Bogotá, dated Nov. 10, 1953, not printed (821.413/11–1053).
  3. Evaristo Sourdis.
  4. A note attached to the source text, addressed to Mr. Gerberich, dated Nov. 17, 1953, initialed by Mr. Cabot, reads as follows: “We must distinguish clearly between what is Protestant and what is American in any action. Can you specify more clearly?”
  5. No attachments are printed.
  6. Reference is to the Treaty of peace, amity, navigation, and commerce, signed at Bogotá, Dec. 12, 1846, and entered into force, June 10, 1848; for text, see 9 Stat. 881.
  7. In a memorandum of conversation between Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Woodward and Colombian Ambassador Zuleta Angel, dated July 12, 1954, concerning the religious situation in Colombia, the Ambassador is recorded as having stated that “the most that Colombia is willing to concede to the Protestants is that they may worship in their own churches, chapels and other places of worship … and that they will be permitted to have schools in which to educate Protestant children.” The memorandum, drafted by Mr. Gerberich, reads in part as follows: “The Ambassador made it abundantly clear that he and his Government are thoroughly anti-Protestant in sentiment, and that the Conservative Government is determined to prohibit any deliberate proselytizing and will give no assurance of protection to Protestants who are attempting to convert Catholics to Protestantism.” (821.413/7–1254)