As gang threatens violence, families of captured missionaries ask for continued prayers
Families of the American and Canadian missionaries held captive in Haiti thanked believers for their prayers Thursday in a letter read aloud by a spokesman for Christian Aid Ministries, the nonprofit that organized the trip abroad.
"We thank Him that He is God and ask him to hear our prayers and bring our families home," recited Weston Showalter, visibly emotional as he read the families' letter outside the Christian Aid Ministries headquarters in Millersburg, Ohio.
Showalter read from the letter the same day a video circulated on social media showing the leader of the 400 Mawozo gang, which police say kidnapped the missionaries, threatening to kill them if he isn't paid the ransom the gang has demanded for their release.
"I swear by thunder that if I don't get what I'm asking for, I will put a bullet in the heads of these Americans," he said in the video, the Associated Press reported.
Standing before coffins that apparently held the bodies of members of his gang who recently were killed, gang leader Wilson Joseph also threatened Haitian officials.
Seventeen missionaries from America and Canada were captured Saturday in Haiti as they left an orphanage near Port-au-Prince. They include members of a family from Hart, Michigan. Some of the captives are children, including some from the Hart family.
The 400 Mawozo gang is demanding a $1 million ransom per captive.
The Hart family are longtime missionaries and known throughout Oceana County as loving and generous. They are members of the Hart Dunkard Brethren church, a small Anabaptist congregation in rural west Michigan.
The captured missionaries include people from Wisconsin, Ohio, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Ontario, Showalter said.
Their families are in contact and providing each other with encouragement and prayer, Showalter said. In their letter, they also asked people to pray for the kidnappers holding their families hostage.
Christian Aid Ministries published a video of the press conference.
"Thank you again for your prayers," Showalter said. "We greatly appreciate the outpouring of support from all around the world during this difficult time."
Christian Aid Ministries responded over email to the threatening video posted by an apparent kidnapper, declining to comment until the group was assured its comments would not jeopardize the group's safety.
"We again urge all who are aware of this development to view the recently posted letter from the families of those taken and join us as we seek God’s protection and deliverance in this situation," the group wrote.
Christian Aid Ministries describes itself as a channel allowing Mennonite, Amish and conservative Anabaptist groups to do humanitarian and mission work. The missionaries were in Haiti to work with school children, distribute Bibles and Christian literature, provide medicine to health clinics, distribute food and work with Haitian pastors, the organization said.
A series of crises have developed in Haiti this year. President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in July, a devastating earthquake hit in August and a surge in crime and kidnappings have followed.
The federal government does not pay kidnapping ransoms, although experts said private groups like families and churches may do so.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Biden administration is "relentlessly focused" on the kidnapping. The FBI and State Department have been dispatched and the agencies are working with the missionaries' families, church, Haitian police and Haitian government, he said.
Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.