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28831: (news) Chamberlain: Kidnapping of foreign missionaries (fwd)

From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>


   PORT-AU-PRINCE, Aug 4 (AP) -- An American minister and his companion
snatched on their way to church. Franciscan friars abducted on a busy
street. A Canadian pastor seized at gunpoint from his rural orphanage.
   Foreign missionaries have become prime targets in Haiti, where an
upsurge in violence has made their jobs more difficult and dangerous at a
time when they are needed most.
   Religious workers, mostly Protestant and Roman Catholic, say they are
trying to lower their profile in the often-lawless country, cloistering
themselves in fortified compounds protected by razor-wire walls and armed
guards and going out as little as possible.
   Others have decided to stay in their home countries. Several groups said
the violence has scared off volunteers who once streamed into Haiti on
short-term mission trips to build homes, install plumbing and pass out
meals in some of the poorest, most desolate areas.
   "It's really shut down the visitors," said Tom Osbeck, of Fort Wayne,
Ind., whose Protestant-run Jesus in Haiti Ministry operates a school in a
rural town north of the capital. "People are leery of coming. They read
about the kidnappings in the news."
   There is no official census of foreign religious workers in Haiti, but
there are believed to be as many as 1,000 in a country of 8 million that is
the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.
   Besides seeking converts, missionaries and church groups run a vital
network of hospitals, orphanages, schools and food-distribution sites,
bolstering Haiti's cash-strapped new government.
   For many Haitians, missionaries fill an urgent need that the weak
government simply can't, especially in education.
   Missionaries run or support 2,000 primary schools attended by 600,000
students -- a third of Haiti's school-aged population, said Adriano
Gonzalez, the UNICEF representative in Haiti.
   "Because of missionaries, half a million children can go to school,"
Gonzalez said. "They are irreplaceable."
   But the kidnappings have kept workers away, depriving missions of sorely
needed staff, along with the donations they typically bring, said Matthew
Marek, Haiti-based director of Norwich Mission House, part of the
Connecticut-based Haitian Ministries.
   "We've been hit pretty hard financially," said Marek, whose Catholic
group welcomed about 200 volunteers a year during calmer times.
   Missionaries say they believe they're targeted only because they stand
out as foreigners and are more vulnerable than U.N. and foreign embassy
personnel, who often travel in armored convoys.
   Most of the kidnappings are blamed on well-armed street gangs, which
have flourished in the aftermath of the February 2004 revolt that toppled
former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Some gangs are loyal to Aristide
and want his return from exile in South Africa.
   An 8,800-strong U.N. peacekeeping force has stepped up offensives
against the gangs but hasn't penetrated most of the dense slums where they
   The threat was highlighted last week by the bold, daylight kidnapping of
two North Carolina missionaries as they drove to church. Days later, two
Franciscan friars, an El Salvadoran and a Haitian, were seized near the
airport. All were released unharmed.
   The U.S. missionaries spent five days crammed in a sweltering concrete
room in a seaside slum, enduring death threats from gun-waving gangsters
who demanded hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom. The sum eventually
paid was not disclosed.
   "Their guns were loaded, there was one in the chamber and the safety was
off," said ex-hostage Tom Barron, of High Point, N.C., recalling one of
several times he stared up at a pistol being thrust at him.
   Haiti isn't the only dangerous place for missionaries. An American nun
and rain forest defender was shot to death in Brazil last year in a dispute
over land.
   Yet missionaries have been coming to Haiti for decades, and most say
it's never been so risky.
   Daniel Phelsumar, a Haitian-born missionary based in Tampa, Fla.,
arrived last December to deliver supplies to an orphanage. Minutes after
leaving the airport, 15 men armed with automatic rifles jumped out and
fired on the car, which had a "Jesus Loves You" sticker on the back.
   Phelsumar's companion, Canadian missionary Ed Hughes, was wounded and
lost an arm in the attack. Then last month, kidnappers struck again and
snatched Hughes from his orphanage and held him a week.
   "Before when you went to Haiti as a pastor, you didn't have to worry
about getting shot at," said Phelsumar, who was dragged from the car and
spent four days in captivity.
   Faced with the threats, missionaries are ramping up security, syphoning
away resources that could go to development projects.
   At the Protestant-run Mission of Hope in rural Titanyen, just north of
Port-au-Prince, officials put up an 8-foot chain-link fence, built a new
security post and imposed 24-hour patrols by armed guards after gunmen
riding horseback attacked the property in January.
   "Things have escalated," said Brad Johnson, president of Mission of
Hope, which runs an orphanage, church and several schools.
   Still, he said his mission has no plans to pull out of the impoverished
Caribbean nation.
   "The worst thing that could happen is for everyone to leave," said
Johnson, of Hope, Ind. "This is when we're needed most."