Religious aid groups are compelled to serve in Haiti, but do they also serve as gang kidnap targets?
Missionary groups like Christian Aid Ministries, hit by a gang abduction in Haiti over the weekend, say they won't be intimidated — but they have little protection.
Haitian and U.S. officials say they’re negotiating the release of 17 hostages, all associated with a U.S. Christian missionary organization, who were kidnapped for ransom Saturday by one of Haiti’s violent street gangs.
But the kind of religious aid workers Haiti’s gangs are targeting, including those from Miami, say the rampant abductions won’t stop their work.
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The 17 people who were seized outside Port-au-Prince — including 16 Americans and five children — are part of the Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries. Their abductors, the notorious 400 Mawozo gang, are said to be demanding a million dollars for each captive.
Christian Aid Ministries is just the latest religious hit group by Haiti’s powerful gangs. Last December a Seventh-Day Adventist pastor from Miami and his daughter were kidnapped outside an Adventist hospital in Port-au-Prince. They were released, but the group would not say if a ransom was paid.
Pastor Leonard Johnson, the Adventists’ Inter-American executive secretary in Miami, says Haiti’s terrifying abduction wave creates a dilemma for the groups.
“It’s a very tough call," Johnson told WLRN.
"We cannot stop our service to humanity or to the nation of Haiti, and we will not be intimidated. But of course that is not to say that we just operate carelessly.”
Haiti's government has all but collapsed and its police seem powerless to confront the country's politically-affiliated gangs — which are estimated to have taken control of half of the capital, Port-au-Prince.
Last month a Haitian gang murdered a Baptist deacon inside his Port-au-Prince church during a service — and then kidnapped his wife.
As a result of the increased power of the gangs, Johnson says the Adventists (a Protestant Christian denomination) have re-evaluated some of their work in Haiti and advised its members to delay non-essential efforts until security there improves. But he stresses that the beliefs of groups like his compel them to "do the work of God" in poor countries like Haiti "under any circumstances."
Still, Johnson said they likely wouldn’t object to increased security — including a U.S. security presence — since Haiti’s gangs consider them an easy and lucrative target.
“Foreign governments, the United States and others getting involved — whatever will work well for the nation of Haiti, certainly that will be a good move," Johnson said.