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Haitian gang wants $1 million ransom for each of the 17 kidnapped missionaries


Seventeen people from a Christian aid mission who were abducted in Haiti over the weekend are still missing. They were with an organization called Christian Aid Ministries, based in Ohio. NPR's Laurel Wamsley is following the situation.

Hi, Laurel.


SHAPIRO: What's the latest on this abduction?

WAMSLEY: Well, a gang called 400 Mawozo has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and is reportedly asking for a ransom of $1 million per person. The U.S. and Haitian governments are working to free them, as is Christian Aid Ministries. I should mention that this group's abduction is far from the only kidnapping that's happened in Haiti, where there's been a huge spike in kidnappings recently, mostly of Haitian people. There have been 119 kidnappings just in the first half of October, according to the local nonprofit Center of Analysis and Research of Human Rights.

SHAPIRO: And can you tell us anything about the specific people who were kidnapped?

WAMSLEY: Well, the group includes six men, six women and five children. The kids range in age from 15 at the oldest to just 8 months old at the youngest. Their Haitian driver was also abducted. Sixteen of them are U.S. citizens, and one is Canadian. They were reportedly all traveling in one van, returning from visiting an orphanage outside Port-au-Prince. According to The Detroit News, five are members of one family from western Michigan, a mother and her four children, that arrived in Haiti 10 days ago. The father was apparently back at the mission's home base in Haiti. It's possible that the group is a mix of people visiting short term from the United States, along with long-term staff members who live in Haiti.

SHAPIRO: And what more can you tell us about the group, Christian Aid Ministries, that sponsored these people?

WAMSLEY: Christian Aid Ministries - it's a relief and development organization. It was founded in 1981 in Holmes County, Ohio. And that's an area with one of the largest communities of Amish and conservative Mennonites. Christian Aid Ministries is one of the main service organizations connected to these communities. And they're pretty big. The organization had a revenue of $132 million last year. They do a range of both domestic and international projects. And the group has actually been in the news before. Two years ago, one of its former employees was convicted of sexually abusing two boys in Ohio, and that employee allegedly admitted to abusing many boys in Haiti over a 15-year period.

SHAPIRO: So what is this organization doing in Haiti?

WAMSLEY: They have a long history there. They have been doing work in Haiti since the late 1980s. I spoke with Steve Nolt, who is a professor of history and Anabaptist studies at Elizabethtown College. And here's what he told me about their work there.

STEVE NOLT: They've done a number of things through the years, including support and sponsorship of orphanages. They have a microfinance program. They distribute what are called school kits, which are collections of school supplies that are provided free to schoolchildren.

WAMSLEY: They also supply medicines and distribute Christian literature. And recently, they've been doing rebuilding projects after the earthquake there in August.

SHAPIRO: And this is just one of many similar organizations doing this kind of work in Haiti?

WAMSLEY: Definitely. It's the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, so there's a lot of need. And it's also really close to the United States, so it's an easy place to travel to, even if the conditions there make it an increasingly difficult place to work. We spoke with Karen Richman, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame, who's done a lot of work in Haiti. She says she doesn't know the exact number of missions in the U.S. - from the U.S. in Haiti, but it's a lot.

KAREN RICHMAN: Haiti has a reputation of being one of the most missionized countries in the world.

WAMSLEY: She says many missionaries lived there for a long time and establish schools and clinics.

SHAPIRO: And what's next in the effort to get back these kidnapped folks?

WAMSLEY: In an update this afternoon, Christian Aid Ministries says it's holding a day of fasting and prayer tomorrow, inviting people to pray for the kidnapping victims, the governments working for their release and for the kidnappers themselves. That's been something interesting that Christian Aid Ministries has stressed throughout - prayers for the kidnappers. It's a reflection of the group's religious tradition of nonviolence and peacemaking.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Laura Walmsley.

Thanks a lot for the update.

WAMSLEY: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.