Missionary pilot held in Mozambique
Mission Aviation Fellowship routinely flies aid missions to remote orphan communities
In and around Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), Ryan Koher, 31, is known as a gentle giant. With a towering narrow frame, he’s hard to miss and carries himself with what staff at the organization described as a “get-it-done” work ethic. Up until last week, Koher flew as an Ambassador Aviation pilot in partnership with MAF to carry medical supplies, food, and the gospel to difficult-to-reach orphan communities in Mozambique’s restive northernmost province.
And then, on Nov. 4, he was arrested on suspicion of supporting terrorist activities.
“He was there ready to load [the plane] and was undergoing a normal security scan. That’s when the police saw some stuff they were interested in,” MAF spokesman Brad Hoaglun said. “Originally the accusation was ‘you brought drugs or over-the-counter medication into the country’ … and later they took him to another prison because of accusations of aiding terrorists. It’s kind of a head-scratcher.”
Hoaglun says Mozambique authorities also detained W.J. Du Plessis and Eric Dry—two South African nationals.
The teams at MAF and Ambassador Aviation became alarmed when Koher was moved to a high-security prison outside the capital, Maputo. What could have been a fine for importing medical supplies without government consent was quickly becoming something more. MAF and Ambassador Aviation strongly affirm that the accusations against Koher are meritless.
MAF, in partnership with the U.S. Embassy in Mozambique and Koher’s attorney, has called on the government for his release. But almost a month later, the country’s government has not clarified the situation, and Koher’s future with the Mozambique legal system is uncertain.
Koher flew in and around parts of Mozambique where insurgent groups operate. Azul-Sunnah Wa-Jama (ASWJ), a local terror group, began staging deadly attacks in the impoverished but gas-rich Cabo Delgado province in 2017. The insurgency has killed more than 4,000 people and displaced nearly one million others. In 2019, ASWJ pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, carving out a southern Africa affiliate for the group.
Troops from Rwanda and some 2,000 soldiers from the regional Southern Africa Development Community are helping Mozambique on the battlefront as the insurgents seek to extend their reach. On Sunday, the group released a video displaying a cache of assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and other weapons captured in a recent attack in Muidumbe district.
Back in September, the Islamic State Mozambique claimed responsibility for burning two churches and the homes of more than 120 Christians in the neighboring Nampula province. An Italian nun died in the attack.
Last month, the terror group vowed to kill Christians and Jews in Cabo Delgado’s Macomia district unless they convert to Islam or pay jizya—a tax paid by non-Muslims.
Mozambique’s government has a preexisting relationship with MAF and its mission to bring supplies to orphaned children in the northern part of the country among many other humanitarian services. MAF has been involved in Mozambique since 1999 and in 2014 became a “registered charter service in the country,” according to one of the organization’s news releases.
That extended partnership is something Hoaglun hopes will lead to a turnaround of Koher’s situation in the near future.
“We certainly support the government in protecting their people up north,” Hoaglun said. “We’ve flown to evaluate people, bring in medical supplies, medicine, food, and relief workers. So we’ve certainly helped the government with those flights. That’s why it’s also kind of troubling that this situation is not moving quicker towards a resolution for this.”
According to the 2021 U.S. Department of State Report on International Religious Freedom, 27 percent of Mozambicans identify as Catholic, 19 percent as Muslim, and 17 percent as evangelical or Pentecostal. The remaining population is a mix of Zionist, Jewish, Hindu, and Baha’i worshipers.
“The constitution provides the right to practice freely or not to practice religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion,” the State Department wrote. “These and other rights may temporarily be suspended or restricted only in the event of a declaration of a state of war, siege, or emergency.”
Koher’s lawyer is trying to negotiate for release on bail. Like in American courts, that would allow Koher to go free at least while trial preparations are underway. But without Koher being charged with any specific crime, bail remains off the table. Further complicating the case is Koher’s transfer from a regional prison to a maximum security facility, changing the case to a state-level issue.
Without further understanding the basis for Koher’s arrest, Hoaglun explains it’s difficult to defend him. The Mozambican government has said it won’t press charges against Koher until the conclusion of its own internal investigation. In the meantime, the U.S. Embassy maintains weekly communications with him, through which he’s been able to communicate with MAF.
“He’s well. He says he has been treated well,” Hoaglun said. “He asked for a photo of his family and a Bible delivered to him. He’s being a witness for Christ.”
Onize Ohikere contributed to this report.