MILLERSBURG, Ohio – The audacious abduction of U.S. missionaries and their family members as they left an orphanage outside Port-au-Prince has brought the political strife sweeping across Haiti home to this quiet Ohio town.
Seventeen people – seven women, five men, five children, all Americans except one Canadian – were seized Saturday in the community of Ganthier east of the capital, the Millersburg-based Christian Aid Ministries said.
“We are seeking God’s direction for a resolution, and authorities are seeking ways to help,” the missionary group said in a statement.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that the FBI and State Department are working toward gaining release of the hostages. President Joe Biden has been briefed and is receiving regular updates, she said.
“The FBI is part of a coordinated U.S. government effort to get the U.S. citizens involved to safety,” Psaki said at a news conference. “We are not going to go into too much detail on that but can confirm their engagement.”
Psaki said the U.S. Embassy is “providing assistance to the families to resolve the situation.”
The kidnapping was the work of the 400 Mawozo gang, which controls the area where the attack took place, Haitian police say. The gang – whose name loosely translates from Creole to “400 unskilled,” or “400 inexperienced” – was blamed for the kidnapping of five priests and two nuns in April.
In that case, the gang initially demanded a $1 million ransom. All seven captives were released, but authorities did not say whether a ransom was paid.
Months before that attack, Haitian police had issued a wanted poster for the gang’s suspected leader, Wilson Joseph, on charges including murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, auto theft and the hijacking of trucks carrying goods.
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It was not clear why the gang would target Christian Aid Ministries. Aid groups in Haiti often rely on guarantees of safe passage from gang leaders who issue public assurances for aid workers. Still, the disintegration of government control in recent months has fueled an alarming increase in kidnappings.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R- Ill., told CNN the U.S. should negotiate with the kidnappers but not pay ransom.
“We need to track down where they are and see if negotiations – without paying ransom – are possible,” he said. “Or do whatever we need to do, on a military front or police front.”
Christian Aid Ministries includes Amish, Mennonite and other conservative and Baptist denominations and has worked in Haiti as part of its global mission “to minister to physical and spiritual needs.” Workers returned to Haiti last year after staying away for nine months because of safety concerns stemming from gang violence.
Millersburg, 65 miles south of Cleveland, is home to about 3,000 people. Resident James Beachy, 59, said his family and others volunteer at Christian Aid Ministries, sorting clothes or funneling donations.
“They do a great job in Haiti and Third World countries to help people,” Beachy said. “We’re just glad to be a part of people who can help.”
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The ministry was established as a charity in 1981 and received federal tax-exempt status the next year. A recent financial report claimed annual service to 14 million people in 133 countries in 2020. In recent years, the charity has supported three international programs totaling more than $100 million in annual spending.
The Medicines-For-Multitudes program, spending $57.3 million, distributes medicines and medical supplies to 380 sites in Eastern Europe, Liberia, Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador and other parts of the world.
The Bibles-for the-World program – $39 million – translates, prints and distributes Bibles and biblical literature to needy families, the elderly and others. The Clothing Bundle Project – $10 million – ships used clothing, footwear and comforters around the world to impoverished and war-torn countries such as Nigeria, Ukraine, Nicaragua, Syria and more.
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Haiti, by most measures the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, can use the help. President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated at his home in July. In August, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake killed more than 2,200 people and destroyed more than 130,000 homes, along with roads and other infrastructure. Days later, Tropical Storm Grace rolled across the country, dumping up to 10 inches of rain and causing widespread flooding.
Just last week, Christian Aid Ministries blogged about a struggling Haitian student, an under-resourced educator and the humanitarian organization’s Haiti-Sponsor-A-Child School Program. Donations to the program provide textbooks, school supplies and a warm daily meal for 9,430 students at 52 schools in Haiti, the group says.
In Haiti, local unions and other organizations were launching strikes Monday to protest the nation’s rampant kidnappings and violence. Méhu Changeux, president of Haiti’s Association of Owners and Drivers, told radio station Magik9 the work stoppage would continue until the government could guarantee people’s safety.
“Everyone is concerned,” he said. “They’re kidnapping from all social classes.”
The U.S. State Department said Sunday that it was in regular contact with senior Haitian authorities and would continue to work with them to win freedom for the hostages.
“The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State,” the agency said in a statement.
Bacon reported from Arlington, Va. Contributing: Doug Livingston, Akron Beacon Journal; The Associated Press