Valentina (15) in Colombia can't live at home - it wouldn't be safe. Because of her Christian faith, and because her dad's a church leader, she faces persecution from guerrilla gangs and indigenous groups. Thanks to your ongoing prayers and support, she can live at the Colombia Children's Centre run by Open Doors.
If you were to ask Valentina her favourite thing about Christmas, it wouldn’t be the decorations on the tree, the food or even the presents. She loves all those things, like any 15-year-old. But her favourite thing? “For me, the best Christmas is when I’m with my family.”
"I felt that I had no freedom where I lived. I always wanted to leave." Valentina
Most children live with their family all year round. But Valentina can’t. Christmas is one of the only occasions when she gets to spend time with her family. It’s not that her parents Francisco and Luz don’t want her at home – but, rather, that being a Christian is really dangerous in Cauca, their Colombian town. And children are particularly at risk.
“I felt that I had no freedom where I lived,” shares Valentina. “I always wanted to leave. I used to say, ‘My God, I want to get out of here. I don’t even know where I want to go, but I want to leave.’”
What makes living in Cauca so difficult? While the population of Colombia is overwhelmingly Christian, there are still areas where following Jesus is dangerous. Those who convert from indigenous beliefs or oppose the activities of criminal groups are particularly at risk. That’s why Colombia is number 30 on the Open Doors World Watch List. Persecution started when Valentina’s father took a stand for religious freedom, for his family and for all the other Christians in the region.
In Cauca, the population and the local authorities are predominantly from an indigenous community that practises occult rituals and is openly hostile to Christians. The Cauca Indigenous Regional Council (CIRC) was actively trying to close churches and impose indigenous rites in schools, including the one Valentina attended. Francisco – a church leader – felt called to start an indigenous Christian council. “We wanted to create it so that our children would have a Christian education,” he says. These councils are a vital way of getting access to all the help the government can offer.
The CIRC were furious. In response, they tried to take away basic rights from the family. “When we left CIRC, they told the Education Department that we had no right to education or healthcare,” Francisco says. Other local Christian children were also being denied the chance to go to school.
And that wasn’t the only problem. As well as having freedoms taken away from them, the family were threatened by local guerrilla groups. In Colombia, these guerrilla groups target prominent Christians in the community – particularly church leaders – because these believers stand against corruption and protect children from being coerced into joining the cartels. “The guerrillas were looking to recruit children as young as 12 years old,” says Francisco. He knew that Valentina and her siblings were at risk.
This is where Open Doors supporters like you stepped in. Because it’s not safe for children such as Valentina to live in dangerous areas, their parents often make the difficult decision to send them somewhere much safer: the Children’s Centre, run by Open Doors partners.
"Thank God there was an open door at the Children’s Centre." Francisco, Valentina's father
“We sought help to get our children out, as desperate parents,” says Francisco. “Thank God there was an open door at the Children’s Centre.”
At the Children’s Centre, Valentina is able to get Christian education and support. She doesn’t face any threats or harassment. She won’t be targeted for following Jesus. And though she can’t be with her family, all the other children at the centre have become like a family for her.
“I was sad, because I missed my family, but now I don’t want to leave the Children’s Centre,” she says. “I don’t know if my life would exist if I still lived in Cauca, or if I’d be lost.”
Sending their child away to the other side of the country was a difficult decision for Francisco and Luz to make. They wouldn’t have done it if there had been a safe alternative – but they knew it was the right thing to do for Valentina’s future. Some of the dangers the family face would have gone away if Francisco had stopped defending religious freedoms, and stopped sharing the gospel in his community. But he knows that it’s a price worth paying in order to obey God.
“We were feeling sad to send our daughter so far away that we couldn’t see her, but happy at the same time knowing that she wasn’t in danger anymore,” says Francisco. He also loves knowing that she is part of a Christian community. “They are prepared, not just academically but also biblically. So they are getting closer to God, and that’s great for them and for us.”
Valentina has spent four years at the Children’s Centre so far, and her life has been radically transformed. “When I got to the centre, I said ‘Thank you, God – because I didn’t have this in mind, but You brought me here,’” she remembers. “I love visiting home, but I don’t want to stay there.”
Some of Valentina’s story is unique to her region. But other parts of it would be familiar to hundreds of thousands of Christian children across the world. In many countries, these children face persecution because of their faith – either because they are directly targeted, or because they suffer when their families are persecuted.
For Mimi in Iraq, persecution targeted her whole family when she was very young. She is 12 now, but was only four years old when her family had to flee so-called Islamic State (IS). Open Doors partners are helping the family financially, so they can run a farm. Valentina’s situation is different from Mimi’s in many ways – but similar enough that the two girls, living thousands of miles apart, can understand and support each other.
They’ve been able to write letters to each other – sharing their experiences, and giving each other hope for the future. It has given the girls a chance to feel part of a global family of believers.
“When I heard your story, I was angry about what happened to you,” Mimi writes to Valentina. “I know how you feel – because we, the Christians in Iraq, have also been persecuted.”
“I know that, in the middle of persecution, God is faithful and merciful,” writes Valentina in reply. “He is the best because He takes care of us. It’s Jesus who unites us and means we can enjoy peace and hope.”
The problems faced by Christian children are diverse and complex, and so the solutions need to be too. Around the world, Open Doors partners respond with context-specific programmes to support, protect and encourage persecuted Christian children.
Sometimes that means a programme specifically aimed at children, like the Colombian Children’s Centre. In other scenarios, a programme will bless a child by strengthening a whole family. Your gifts and prayers help ensure the survival of the church in places where following Jesus comes with the most risk. But it’s not just about the future – it’s about today, too. And today, hundreds of thousands of persecuted Christian children need to know that they have a worldwide family who are standing beside them.
Valentina has a message for all the other children like her, facing persecution because of their faith: “For those people who are being persecuted, I would tell them not to leave their faith. If they are still here, it’s because God has a purpose for them, even though we don’t see it immediately.”
"With God, nothing is impossible. I know He can help me." Francisco, Valentina's father
She knows she faces ongoing danger, but her hope for the future remains strong. She wants to study art when she leaves the children’s centre, and dreams of one day travelling and meeting many people to share her experiences with, and to spread the gospel. “With God, nothing is impossible,” she says. “I know He can help me.”
One way He helps Valentina, and so many children like her, is through your gifts and prayers. Today, can you show these courageous young believers that you are their family, and they are yours?
Your support helps persecuted Christians continue to courageously follow Jesus.
Together, we can reach those where persecution hits hardest.