YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Father Joseph Azubuike, a Nigerian priest who was kidnapped on July 10, has regained his freedom along with three other men travelling with him who were also taken.

Azubuike’s release, along with the three other kidnap victims, was confirmed to Crux by the Vicar General of the Abakaliki Diocese in Nigeria’s south-eastern Ebonyi state, Father Donatus O. Chukwu.

“We are happy to report that Fr. Azubuike is a free man and back to his parish to continue his ministry to the people of God,” Chukwu told Crux.

“We are grateful to God and to all who facilitated their release,” he said.

Chukwu explained that Azubuike had been kidnapped “in the evening hours of Monday, July 10, less than a kilometer from his rectory of St. Charles Parish, Mgbalaeze Isu, Onicha Local Government Area of Ebonyi State, Southeast Nigeria. He was returning from a pastoral engagement when the incident happened. They were taken into a forest.”

The kidnappers demanded a 50 million Naira ransom (roughly US $66,000) or Azubuike would be killed, Chukwu said.

“The kidnappers warned that any involvement of law enforcement agencies would result in the killing of Fr. Joseph Azubuike,” he said.

Yet by 6:00 p.m. local time on July 12, all four men regained their freedom, according to the Ebonyi Police Department and the Abakaliki Diocese.

“Thanks to the joint efforts of the emergency services, Father Joseph Azubuike was freed from the kidnappers unharmed and in good health,” said police spokesman Onome Onovwakpoyeya.

“Intense efforts are underway to apprehend the perpetrators who escaped during the rescue operation. The Catholic cleric is currently undergoing a medical examination in hospital,” he said.

The chancellor of the Abakaliki diocese, Father Mathew Opoke, also confirmed the release, saying in a statement that no ransom was paid.

“We are pleased to announce that Father Joseph Azubuike and the other three people kidnapped with him have regained their freedom. It is a cause for rejoicing that God has answered our prayers and announced the unconditional release of his servant in an extraordinary way. We are grateful to all those who acted immediately upon learning the devastating news of his kidnapping and that of his three companions,” Opoke’s statement said.

The kidnapping of the priest is not a one-off event, according to Church authorities.

“Kidnapping of priests, especially in Southeast Nigeria, has become a common pattern,” Chukwu told Crux.

“Almost all the dioceses in Nigeria have confirmed cases of kidnapping of their clergy. However, this is the first time a priest of Abakaliki diocese was kidnapped,” he said.

On May 19, Father Jude Kingsley Maduka of the Diocese of Okigwe in Imo State was kidnapped while visiting a recently constructed chapel for Eucharistic adoration in the Ogii village of Okigwe.

On April 30, two priests – Father Chochos Kunav, a member of the Schoenstatt community, and Father Ralph Ogigba of the clergy of the diocese of Warri, were kidnapped and then released on May 4.

On April 15, yet another priest, Father Michael Ifeanyi Asomugha of Okigwe Diocese was taken by unidentified gunmen while driving back from a diaconal ordination. He was released a few days later, thanks to an intervention by his family.

Between 2021 and 2022, five priests were kidnapped in the diocese of Okigwe alone, according to the pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need.

Chukwu told Crux that, “Kidnapping has become a multimillion-dollar criminal enterprise in Nigeria.”

In a report titled, “The Economics of Nigeria’s Kidnap Industry,” the research firm SBM Intelligence estimated that between July 2021 and June 2022, no fewer than 3,420 people were abducted across Nigeria, with 564 others killed in violence associated with abductions.

The report disclosed that within the same period, 6.531 billion Naira ($9.9 million) was demanded as ransom payments, and 653.7 million Naira ($1.2 million) was paid.

Catholic clergy are a prized target for kidnappers, who often believe that abducting priests can yield significant financial dividends. As a matter of policy, however, the bishops of Nigeria don’t pay ransoms when their priests and pastors are kidnapped.

Chukwu blames the government for ineptitude in the face of such kidnappings, but insists that attacks on religious people won’t deter their commitment to the service of the Lord.

“The government seems incapacitated, or rather lacks the will to deal decisively with this ugly malaise that is ravaging southeast Nigeria. Notwithstanding the incessant kidnapping of priests that has become a recurring decimal, we remain resolute in exercising our ministry to the people of God,” he told Crux.