U.S. missionary once held by Colombian rebels now accused of aiding them

Story highlights

  • Authorities say Russell Stendal gave rebels medical and communications aid
  • The American missionary was once held hostage by the FARC rebels
  • "Somebody set a trap for me, and I walked into it," he says in a video posted online

(CNN)An American missionary once held hostage by Colombian rebels has been accused by local authorities of collaborating with his former captors.

Russell Martin Stendal was born in Minneapolis but has spent much of his life in Colombia. He was kidnapped in 1983 by the left-wing rebel group FARC, which has been locked in conflict with government forces for decades.
    Stendal was released by the rebels after five months and has continued his missionary work around the South American nation since then, including trips into rebel-controlled areas.
    But his activities appear to have run afoul of Colombian authorities, who announced Thursday that they had arrested Stendal, accusing him of supporting the FARC. Police alleged that he was posing as a missionary.

    'Somebody set a trap for me'

    A video posted online appeared to show Stendal speaking after his arrest.
    "Somebody set a trap for me, and I walked into it. And there was a secret order out for my arrest. And here I am," he says in the video, which was purportedly filmed by one of his daughters.
    "They're accusing me of rebellion for the missionary trips and the visits that I made into rebel-held territory, distributing Bibles and Galcom radios," he says, referring to solar-powered portable radio sets that are fixed to receive Christian broadcasts.
    Colombian authorities described his actions differently, saying he installed mobile devices "to transmit propaganda about terrorist activities."
    "He also transported those wounded in combat and gave medical help to members of the guerrilla group," said the prosecutor's office in the Colombian department of Cundinamarca.

    Judge orders his release

    A judge ordered Stendal's release late Thursday night in a court proceeding shown on CNN affiliate Cablenoticias.
    The judge said the prosecutor's case against Stendal was lacking in proof and underdeveloped, ruling there was no reason to keep him in jail. But the judge cautioned that the American isn't free of all charges and that authorities will continue their investigation.
    Stendal's lawyer, Eder Castro, told the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo that his client was committed to "distributing Bibles and preaching the word to everyone."
    The U.S. State Department wasn't immediately available for comment on the matter Thursday.
    The Colombian rebels said authorities had got the wrong end of the stick.
    "It leaves much to be desired of the intelligence department of the police of Cundinamarca to confuse evangelizing with rebellion," said the statement from the FARC, which is known in English as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
    "This citizen always preached peace between armed and unarmed contestants, including insurgents, army and paramilitaries," the rebels said.

    Preaching to the rebels

    During his time as a FARC hostage, Stendal appears to have tried to provide spiritual succor to his kidnappers.
    He released a book about his experience entitled, "Rescue the Captors," in which he talks about "how God worked in the hearts of the rebels," according to the Colombia Para Cristo website.
    After his release, he took part in evangelical campaigns across Colombia and set up radio stations to broadcast gospel preaching and music into the conflict zones.
    The FARC, which started as an insurgency in 1964, has taken part in peace negotiations with the government in an effort to end more than half a century of fighting.
    Talks have stalled several times over the years, and the group has been accused of bombings, murder, extortion and kidnappings.