Abducted Missionary Freed After Nearly 7 Years; Christians Urge Prayers
By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
NIAMEY (Worthy News) – Christians have asked prayers for evangelical U.S. missionary Jeffery Woodke and his family following his release from nearly seven years of captivity by Islamic militants in West Africa.
Woodke arrived last week in Niger’s capital Niamey along French journalist Olivier Dubois who was freed with him.
The missionary went missing in Niger in 2016, while Dubois was kidnapped in neighboring Mali nearly two years ago.
Dubois, 48, began working as a freelance journalist in Mali in 2015 for the Parisian daily newspaper Libération and news weekly Le Point.
The journalist announced his abduction in a video posted on social media in May 2021, saying he had been abducted in the northern city of Gao by the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM).
The jihadist alliance in the Sahel region of Africa has been linked to the terror group Al-Qaeda.
Following his release, Libération editor-in-chief Dov Alfon said: “We are deeply relieved and happy about this outcome.”
French President Emmanuel Macron thanked Niger in a tweet and said Dubois was in “good health” after speaking to him.
Woodke, 61, of McKinleyville, California, had been working as a missionary and aid worker in Niger for 32 years.
His wife, Els Woodke, said in a statement that she “praises God for answering the prayers of Christians everywhere who have prayed for this outcome.”
The release circumstances were not immediately precise. However, the White House said no direct negotiations with the militant organization that held Woodke, and no ransom or so-called quid pro quo was part of his release.
White House National Security spokesperson John Kirby said, “There were no concessions made. There were no swaps here. This was just hard, grueling, deliberate work by diplomats and other experts directly with the government of Niger to get him home. Hopefully, I mean, he’ll be home soon, but we’re looking forward to that.”
U.S. President Joe Biden said he was “gratified to share that American Jeff Woodke was released from captivity in West Africa.” He added that “Jeff was kidnapped while serving people in the Sahel as an aid worker, and I am grateful that he will soon be reunited with his wife, Els, and their family after spending more than six years held hostage by terrorists.”
He said that he appreciated the efforts by the Nigerien government and others, “including the hard-working patriots of the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell based at the FBI, the U.S. military, and of the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs based at the Department of State.”
MORE AMERICANS DETAINED
Biden pledged that the U.S. remains” committed to keeping faith with Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained all around the world, and there is no higher priority for this Administration than our work to bring them home.”
Woodke was kidnapped from his home in Abalak, in northern Niger, on October 14, 2016, according to Christians familiar with the situation.
His kidnappers were thought to be members of a local radical Islamic group called Mujao, though the Dubois video footage suggested they may have had ties with the GSIM group.
The militants reportedly took him out of Niger to eastern Mali. “In the intervening years, it appears he was moved across borders to other nations on multiple occasions,” said the advocacy group Open Doors.
Woodke ran several development projects among the Tuareg people, and people in the community were reportedly shocked by his abduction.
“He lived among us for years, even when it has been difficult to accompany vulnerable populations,” said Bilou Mohamed, Abalak’s mayor, in published remarks. “Everyone knows his goodness.”
The aid worker was freed outside of Niger, in a border area with Mali and Burkina Faso, U.S. officials said. He was then moved to Niger’s capital Niamey for medical checks.
CHRISTIANS WERE PRAYING
“This is such wonderful news and a big relief for Jeff and for all who were praying for him,” said Illia Djadi, Open Doors’ senior analyst for sub-Saharan Africa.
“We have been praying and advocating for the release of Jeff for years. It’s the end of over six years of suffering and agony for him and his family.”
Djadi added that “This is such wonderful news and a big relief for Jeff and for all who were praying for him.”
In July 2017, a coalition of Islamic groups published a video showing six foreign hostages, including three missionaries, but not Woodke.
Believing her husband was likely to be held by the same group, Els Woodke published a video pleading with the kidnappers to let her husband go, Worthy News monitored.
Woodke’s release comes amid increased violence by militant Islamists and other groups in the Sahel region, Christians said.
Open Doors, which closely followed the kidnapping, said it had urged supporters to thank God and “pray for healing from their trauma.”
PROTECTION AND PEACE
It was also crucial to pray for “protection and peace for all Christians in the region who live in fear of persecution.”
Open Doors hoped that “governments and decision makers would be equipped to tackle the escalating violence.”
The group warned that “deaths from violent attacks by Islamist groups have increased by almost 50 percent over the past year.”
Citing a report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, Open Doors noted that “the bulk of attacks taking place in Burkina Faso and Mali.”
Niger is number 28 on the Open Doors annual World Watch List of 50 countries where it claims it is most difficult to be a Christian.
Neighbouring Mali is currently at number 17, while Burkina Faso is at number 23. “All three countries have risen in the past year, with the main reason being rising jihadist violence in the region,” Open Doors added.
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