Four Mormon missionaries, all Nigerian young men, were abducted from their apartment in Port Harcourt, Nigeria Saturday and are being held hostage.
While LDS Church officials would not comment today on the captors’ demands, they said they are optimistic that ongoing negotiations will resolve the matter soon.
The abductions came amid escalating violence in the oil-rich Niger Delta region, which prompted the U.S. State Department to issue a travel warning on Jan. 19. Heeding the warning, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took care to move American and European missionaries – less than five missionary couples – to safer ground. Some moved closer to the temple in nearby Aba, while others relocated to different parts of west Africa.
The LDS Church singled out American and European missionaries for transfers because they are the ones most likely to be mistaken for oil company workers, who have been targeted for hostage taking. Since the start of the year, more than 70 oil company employees have been abducted, LDS Church officials said Tuesday in an exclusive interview.
What’s surprising about this situation, beyond the fact that missionaries were targeted for the first time, is that the captors took their own.
“They’ve gotten four poor Africans, just like them,” said LDS Apostle M. Russell Ballard, chairman of the missionary executive council.
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And while some Nigerians may have gripes about the outsiders getting rich off their country’s resources, these four hostages are simply “doing the work of the Lord,” Ballard added.
He and Quentin L. Cook of the First Quorum of Seventy, and also the executive director of the LDS Church’s missionary department, agreed that this incident has nothing to do with the church.
“There’s a lot of mischief in the world, a lot of violence. . . We’ve experienced it right here [at Trolley Square] in the last 10 days,” Ballard said.
Looking at Nigeria in particular, Cook added, “It’s hard to realize how common [hostage taking] has become there.”
Political unrest has intensified in advance of April elections. Given the oil-rich delta, Cook pointed out that “the opposition party wants oil nationalized.” Add into all of this, the danger of copycat hostage takers.
Adapting to upheavals and security concerns is nothing unusual for the LDS Church. Past unrest in Ecuador, Peru and Colombia, for example, prompted shifts in missionary plans, Ballard said. And putting missionaries on “lock down” during elections in places where uprisings might follow is also commonplace, he said.
Moving missionaries and missionary couples around is also the norm. They’re sent where they’re needed, and where they’ll be most secure.
“If there’s a concern, we pull back,” Ballard said. “But we can’t abandon the church.”
Nor do church officials believe Nigerians want to be abandoned. Couple missionaries help drill freshwater wells and cultivate land. Young missionaries also give four hours a week to community service, helping people in their homes and giving time to local hospitals.
“Missionaries of all faiths are given a great deal of respect. They’ve done a lot of good for Africa,” Ballard said. “Our missionaries are seen as a force of good.”
For this reason, community members in Nigeria – including a tribal chief – are stepping up to help secure the release of the missionaries, the officials said.
“Nigerians are god-fearing people,” Cook said. “They want God to bless that country, too.”