U.S. Missionary Is One of a Kind in Rural Colombia

Evangelizes Villages of Demilitarized Region

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VEREDA MIRAFLORES, Colombia, APR. 29, 2001 (Zenit.org).- After a three-hour ride on mule-back under a burning sun, Father Van Hager finally arrives at this small village, set in the middle of guerrilla-controlled coca-cultivation lands.



The American priest first goes to the school, which becomes a church for a few hours. He celebrates Mass and preaches in faulty Spanish to the 30 faithful, who sometimes have trouble following his homily.

"These are the trenches of the Church and of Colombia," the U.S. missionary said at the end of Mass. "Not even Colombians want to come here."

That makes Father Hager, a Consolata missionary, an anomaly. His order generally works in the poorest areas of the world, and he is believed to be the only American priest living in the southern demilitarized zone of this country, ceded by the government to the Colombian Armed Revolutionary Forces (FARC).

The priest´s situation attracted the attention of the Associated Press, which dedicated generous coverage to his story.

FARC, the chief guerrilla group in the country, and a traditional enemy of "Yankee imperialism," has declared that U.S. advisers living in Colombia are military targets. In fact, the group is responsible for the 1999 killing of three U.S. supporters of the Indian cause.

"They have not involved themselves directly with me," said Father Hager, as he closed his bag to continue his village visits.

The faithful here regard the priest´s arrival as an event, appreciating it even more than the gifts he brought them for Christmas, which arrived three months late.

"Your visit is very important for the villagers," schoolteacher Alexander Losada explained. "People scarcely go out here, and no one comes."

Father Hager, 57, is the only priest ministering to 15 isolated villages. To reach the remotest areas, he rides on a mule for eight hours over rough terrain. He travels to other villages by boat, the same transport used by the locals to transport coca leaves.

Through "Plan Colombia," the United States has undertaken a controversial project of fumigation to destroy coca fields, but which also destroys the agricultural production of rural communities. Guerrillas who control the area impose a tax on those who cultivate coca, and the rebels are particularly resentful toward Americans for destroying the illicit crop.

The U.S. State Department has warned that attacks against North Americans might increase as a result of Plan Colombia. Yet, Father Hager said, "I preach like all priests ... but I don´t think I am different because I am an American."

Colombia has seen violent internal conflict for 37 years. The Catholic Church, the only institution present in the whole of the country of 39 million people, has had difficulty finding religious capable of going to areas marked by violence and isolation.

"It is very frustrating work, because of the low religious level of the people," said Father Hager. "However, we continue to work. There are already more couples married in the Church than in the parish´s entire history." He works primarily from the river port of Betania, about 350 kilometers (217 miles) south of Bogota.

The priest who preceded the Consolata missionary remained only nine months before requesting a transfer; and the one before him lasted only a year in this region where the guerrillas are the law.

Born in Buffalo, New York, Father Hager is no stranger to strife. He was a priest in Ethiopia during the 1970s, and he said that country´s civil war was even bloodier than Colombia´s.

During a homily, Father Hager recalled the suffering of the victims of violence. He considers prayer and work for peace as paramount.

"We pray for an end to the conflict, we pray for the kidnapped," the priest added. "We have seen miracles, such as the renewal of dialogues" between the government and the guerrillas.

The missionary´s faithful feel he is close to them, though they only see him about once every two months.

Said Martha Montoya, 22, one of the residents of this village, "He is very good, because he explains the serious things of life to us."