Haitian gangs abduct churchgoers amid escalating violence: 'Kidnappings everywhere'

Tires are burning following a call for a general strike by several professional associations and businesses to denounce the insecurity in Port-au-Prince on October 18, 2021.
Tires are burning following a call for a general strike by several professional associations and businesses to denounce the insecurity in Port-au-Prince on October 18, 2021. | RICHARD PIERRIN/AFP via Getty Images

As civil unrest continues in Haiti with high levels of gang violence, a Catholic archbishop has warned that abductions from churches in the Caribbean nation are happening at a troubling rate.

Archbishop Max Leroy Mésidor of Port-au-Prince, the president of the Haitian Bishops' Conference, told the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need on Friday that no place in the country is safe and pastoral work has been "very badly affected."

"There is a real danger of civil war breaking out," he said. "The armed gangs act like an organized army … The police cannot keep up with them."

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Aid to the Church in Need has already reported several abductions of clergy and religious figures in Haiti this year. 

"There are kidnappings everywhere," Mésidor said. "Everyone is afraid, including the religious. As soon as you leave Port-au-Prince, you are in danger. ... The gangs even come into the churches to kidnap the people there."

Mésidor's comments come as gangs launched a coordinated, large-scale attack on government buildings in or near downtown Port-au-Prince on Friday. A source who spoke with ABC News reports that various gangs targeted different buildings, including the Presidential Palace, the Interior Ministry and a police headquarters. This resulted in gangs and police engaging in gun battles, sending civilians fleeing the area. 

The Presidential Palace hasn't been occupied since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021.

The recent uptick in violence began after armed groups conducted raids on two of the country's largest prisons, freeing thousands of inmates. Port-au-Prince is under a complete state of emergency until April 3. Acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry was out of the country when the unrest began last week. 

Mésidor said the eruption of violence and gang control has made his job more difficult amid the "suffering, violence, gunfights, poverty and deprivation." 

"I cannot visit two-thirds of my diocese because the roads are blocked," he explained. "To reach the south of the diocese, I must take a plane. I have not been to the cathedral for two years. ... The last celebration I was able to do in the cathedral was the Chrism Mass. It was full. But, from the Agnus Dei until the end of the service shots were ringing out. We could see the smoke rising nearby."

The archbishop underlined that those who are faithful have displayed a level of "resilience despite their suffering."

"[Because] they are used to suffering, even when, as now, the suffering is on a terrible scale," he said. 

There are many seminarians and catechists who have pushed themselves to "persevere" and "brave the danger" as they "wish to fulfill a mission," he added. 

"We must bear our cross and follow Christ — especially during this time of Lent. We persevere and we count on the prayers and solidarity of the people," the archbishop noted. 

"The most important thing is that the Church continues to bring people together despite all the difficulties. Through sermons or spiritual exercises for young people, we try to rekindle their hope, to get them to organize themselves and not sink into resignation."

Mésidor is grateful for the help of ACN, a pastoral aid organization that supports persecuted churches worldwide. In Haiti, the archbishop said priests receive "almost no salary," and many Christians are impoverished. 

ACN aids Haiti through formation, retreats and other programs for seminarians, religious and lay people. The organization also provides stipends for priests and emergency aid for religious sisters.

The abduction of Christian leaders and missionaries in Haiti has driven international headlines in recent years. 

In January, gunmen abducted six Catholic nuns from the Congregation of Saint Anne in Port-au-Prince. They were released about a week later. 

Last July, the wife of the founder of the Christian education ministry El Roi Haiti was abducted along with the couple's daughter by armed gangsters. They were released in August

In October 2021, 17 Christian Aid Ministries missionaries were kidnapped. They all eventually were either released or escaped

Nicole VanDyke is a reporter for The Christian Post. 

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