A desperate cry
As abductions in Haiti increase, churches and ministries find themselves in the crosshairs
Three weeks before a notorious Haitian gang kidnapped 17 missionaries visiting an orphanage outside Port-au-Prince on Oct. 16, armed gunmen attacked the morning worship service of First Baptist Church in the capital city’s downtown.
As shots flew near the front gate, Haitian church members ducked under pews and bolted for safety. The assailants shot a 60-year-old deacon as he tried to protect his wife from abduction. The gang fled with the 59-year-old wife, and her husband later died from his injuries.
It’s the kind of attack that would have been surprising just a few years ago. Though Haiti has suffered long from danger and violence, churches were often considered safe zones—or at least safer zones.
That perceived protection is vanishing as spiraling gang violence and frequent abductions put everyone in the potential crosshairs. “In some cases they go after influential people,” a missionary in Port-au-Prince told WORLD. “But now they’re just grabbing anybody.”
On Oct. 16, members of a Haitian gang known as 400 Mawozo grabbed 16 Americans and one Canadian associated with Christian Aid Ministries—an Ohio-based organization founded by members of the Mennonite and Amish communities. Abductees included six men, six women, and five children. The group said the youngest child is 8 months old.
Haitian authorities said the gang demanded a $17 million ransom. FBI agents were working to assist with negotiations, though it was unlikely the kidnappers would successfully obtain such an enormous payout.
Christian Aid Ministries offers Bible studies, medical assistance, and other practical help. The group began as an outreach to Romania in 1981 but grew into a multicountry effort, with some 100 field staffers in countries around the world, according to its most recent annual report.
The Americans and Canadian from Christian Aid Ministries were visiting an orphanage in an area considered dangerous territory—but dangerous territory accounts for at least half of the capital city.
In April, gunmen abducted five priests and two nuns traveling to a community east of Port-au-Prince. The assailants released the hostages after three weeks, though it’s unclear if they received a ransom.
Violence and kidnappings have worsened in the last two years. They’ve spiked since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse on July 7. Gang activity eased momentarily after a 7.2 earthquake struck Haiti’s southeast on Aug. 14, killing some 2,000 people. But the reprieve was short-lived: The week before the missionary kidnappings, gangs hijacked a public bus and shot at a school bus.
Though foreign missionaries are a high-profile target, a missionary working in Port-au-Prince told WORLD kidnappings among lower-income groups have become common as well: Gangs sometimes pluck school kids walking down the street.
The assailants are willing to extort whatever sum relatives can pay, and families sometimes sell their possessions and go into debt to secure the release of a child or other loved one.
That environment makes daily life often grind to a standstill: Pondering a trip to the market, school, or church often involves phone calls to a network of friends to find out if they’ve heard of any trouble in the area. The missionary said many Christians are hanging onto their faith in Christ, but “it’s more of a desperate cry.”
Many missionaries have left the country because of the insecurity, particularly in a nation the U.S. State Department warns Americans against visiting. That makes the Mennonite presence in Haiti notable: A group known for its peaceful separation from parts of society has been willing to live in one of the most dangerous countries in the Western Hemisphere.
The Port-au-Prince missionary says that’s part of the Christian life even in a hard place: “We’re called to be salt and light in places that are falling apart. … That’s who we are. We get to be placed in communities we can help.”
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