YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – In the build-up to Christmas, Christians in the African nation of Niger are thinking of Father Pier Luigi Maccalli, who was kidnapped on Sep. 17.
The Italian missionary was taken from Bomoanga parish, located about 75 miles from the capital, Niamey. It is suspected he may have been taken to the neighboring country of Burkina Faso.
According to a church spokesperson, about eight men arrived on motorbikes, broke into his house opposite the church and forced him to go with them. Church officials said he was targeted: Other protentional victims, including another priest and several nuns, were ignored.
Reports said the priest had gained enemies after promoting the end of the practice of female genital mutilation.
Four months after, Archbishop Djalwana Laurent Lompo of Niamey says the priest is still alive.
Father Désiré Salako, the Benin-Niger district head for the Society of African Missions (SMA) told Fides, a Vatican-affiliated missionary news agency that Lompo can’t reveal details due to “security reasons” but “he asked us to believe that he speaks in sincerity and truth.
Maccalli is a member of the Society of African Missions.
Salako visited the society’s provincial house in Genoa, Italy, three weeks ago to meet with members of the kidnapped priest’s family.
“We asked him many questions and we all hope soon to see Father Gigi well and safe and in good health. Father Salako assured us that no one has forgotten Father Gigi, and all are working in different ways to obtain his release. He passed on to us a message from the archbishop of Niamey, confirming that Father Gigi is well,” said Father Marco Prada.
Prada told Fides the main concern of the Niger authorities and also of the Italian embassy in Niamey, is the safety of Maccalli, and that no action taken may endanger his life.
“We all hope that this event will have a successful ending without useless violence. This is why, said Father Desiré, we must have patience. Time passes and apparent silence and lack of news must not be interpreted as inactivity. On the contrary it is a fruitful atmosphere for the sides to have contact with discretion and reciprocal trust,” Prada said.
Maccalli’s brother Walter is also an SMA missionary, serving in Liberia.
“Every day a prayer is held at Radio Maria Liberia for the release of my brother, Father Gigi Maccalli,” the priest said.
Prada said the priests of the order are studying Maccalli’s writings ahead of the Christmas celebrations.
“Through some writings of Father Gigi himself, all of us, his SMA confreres, keep hope alive,” he said.
During Christmas 2017 – the last the kidnapped priests celebrated with his community – Maccalli urged his brothers to not give up hope.
“Life is a network of two threads: joys and sorrows,” he wrote.
“Only the shepherds heard the angels sing in the sky on Christmas night; but many heard the broken sorrow of the women of Bethlehem who mourned the innocent saints. Christmas among tears of joy and sorrow, which merge together in a single embrace, in the river of life. So it is on a mission: An intertwining of experiences and strong emotions that tell the beauty of human adventure, which even God wanted to share and embrace…. but we do not abandon the hope that one day the desert will flourish!”
During an earlier Christmas – in 2013 – the Italian missionary reflected on the dire situation of those blighted by starvation and conflict in Niger.
“In the evening, in my mission, I often look at the sky. Today I understand why there are so many bright stars: they are the stars of the innocent. In Niger alone, malnutrition has already caused the death of more than 2,500 children between the month of January and September this year. We must also remember the news of last October: The macabre discovery of 92 bodies of migrants found at about ten kilometers from the border with Algeria. The truck that carried them broke down in the Nigerian desert. The victims were 7 men, 37 women and 48 children,” he wrote.
Niger for years has fought extremist groups linked to both al-Qaida and the Islamic State organization. Recently it has experienced a rise in kidnappings with ransom demands.
In April, a German humanitarian worker with the international NGO Help, Jörg Lande, was taken in Niger’s northwest.
On October 4, 2017, suspected jihadists laid an ambush on an American military convoy that resulted in the deaths of four members of American special forces, as well as four soldiers from Niger.