A California church is now praying desperately for the safe return of an American missionary working in Niger after he was forced to strip down to his underwear and then kidnapped from his home by armed men on Friday.
The missionary, identified as 55-year-old Jeffery Woodke of McKinlyville, California, in the North Coast Journal, is a longtime aid worker with Youth With A Mission charity, according to the Independent.
"Jeff Woodke is a home grown product of Arcata First Baptist Church where as a student at Humboldt State University he gave his life to Christ," the church said on the school's website.
"Jeff's passion in providing humanitarian aid to those who are amongst the poorest in the world, coupled with his desire to see God's Kingdom advanced in a largely Muslim world has played a large part in the life and ministry of AFBC," the church added.
Woodke, who Reuters reports was working with a local NGO called JEMED at the time of his kidnapping, has lived in Niger since 1992. On Friday night the gunmen raided his house in central Niger, killing his guard and housekeeper before driving him across the desert toward Mali, Niger's interior ministry said in a statement on Saturday.
"These criminals are now heading toward Mali. Our forces are on their trail," Niger's Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum told Reuters.
Residents reported hearing gunfire near Woodke's home late on Friday and the town's Mayor, Ahmed Dilo, told Reuters that gunmen first came on a motorbike to kill Woodke's guard before whisking the missionary off in a truck.
A government source also told CNN on condition of anonymity that witnesses in Abalak said the gunmen forced Woodke to strip down to his undergarments before putting him in their four-wheel drive vehicle. The source said removing clothes from hostages was a usual practice of terrorist groups trying to avoid being tracked.
Pete Thompson, a spokesperson for YWAM, which the church directed questions to on Saturday, told the Independent that JEMED was a partner organization.
"It is not known where he has been taken and no group has yet claimed responsibility for his abduction," Thompson said.
"His family have been informed and the U.S. government is tracking the situation," he added.
"We are aware of reports of the kidnapping of a U.S. citizen in Niger," a State Department official told The New York Times after the abduction late Friday. "The U.S. Department of State has no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas."
In a statement to the North Coast Journal, North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman said he is working with the State Department to ensure the safe return of the kidnapped missionary.
"My thoughts are with Jeff Woodke and his loved ones during this extremely trying time," Huffman said. "It is devastating to see my constituent who has spent his life dedicated to humanitarian service be victimized in this way. I am working with State Department officials and will do everything in my power to ensure Jeff's swift and safe return home."
According to The New York Times it is believed to be the first time an American citizen has been abducted in the Sahel region of Africa, where al-Qaeda and criminal gangs have targeted French and other European nationals for more than a decade, demanding millions of dollars in ransom.
Woodke earned a bachelor of arts degree in wildlife management and a master of arts degree in environmental systems and international development at Humboldt State University. He has spent the last 25 years of his life working on the ministry he founded in Niger among a number of unreached people groups.
In its latest travel warning on Niger, the Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the risks of traveling to the West African country and specifically recommends that citizens avoid travel to Niger's border regions.
"The entire Lake Chad region is especially vulnerable because of ongoing activities by the extremist group Boko Haram," the warning said.
"U.S. citizens currently in or travelling to Niger should evaluate their personal security situation. The U.S. Embassy has very limited capability to assist U.S. citizens in remote and rural areas. You should take steps to mitigate the risk of becoming a victim of violent acts, and avoid locations routinely frequented by Westerners, such as markets, hotels, restaurants, bars, and places of worship," the warning continued. "Violent groups have targeted these kinds of venues in the past and will likely do so again.