A Nigerian pastor is still being held captive by an Islamic State-affiliated terrorist group despite previous reports that claimed he'd been freed.
"Rev. [Polycarp] Zongo [of the Church of Christ in Nations] has not yet been released by the abductors, contrary to the false information earlier asserted," Nigerian Christian lawyer Dalyop Solomon told The Christian Post on Wednesday.
Churchgoers had prematurely celebrated the pastor's rumored release as prayer vigils turned into celebratory worship gatherings amid the false reports.
The jihadist terrorist group known as Islamic State West African Province, based in northeastern Nigeria, captured Zongo along with two Christian women who were traveling with him from Jos to attend a church conference in Nigeria’s state of Gombe on Oct. 19, said Nigerian Christian leader Gideon Para Mallam in an interview with CP.
The group that released the proof of life video was the Islamic terrorist group Khalifah Army, Para Mallam said. It's unclear whether the Khalifah Army has ties to either ISWAP or Boko Haram, he added.
Para Mallam, who also heads the Nigerian Gideon and Funmi Para-Mallam Peace Foundation, also confirmed that Zongo has not been released.
"We have been sold fake news. Unfortunately, we fell for it. We believed that maybe there was some truth in this. But there was not," he said. "You can imagine the harrowing pain his wife and children and friends are going through right now."
The rumors of Zongo's release are either an online lie, misunderstanding, or an attempt by the Khalifah Army to see how interested Christians are in Zongo's return, Para Mallam said. It might also be an attempt by the group to get a bigger ransom.
"The source of the rumor would provide a clue as to whether the rumor will be worse for him or better for him," he said.
"I appeal to everybody, Christians in Nigeria and the international community, that we will double our prayer for the release of Zongo. Pray that God will do a miracle concerning Pastor Polycarp Zongo," said Para-Mallam.
Rumors of the pastor's release reportedly originated from an unidentified source on WhatsApp.
Khalifah Army's proof of life video gives several reasons for concern, Para-Mallam added. The group knew the names of several important Nigerian Christian groups, which they forced Zongo to plead to for help. They also have not yet sent a ransom demand. These signs indicate that the group might be preparing to kidnap more Christians as they visit family in northern Nigeria for Christmas.
"The church needs to be wise and not walk into a booby trap set by them. We can celebrate Christmas anywhere. Let’s avoid becoming easy prey," Para Mallam stressed.
Zongo's COCIN denomination issued a statement that Para Mallam shared with CP, which said: "The president of COCIN confirmed in church this morning that our pastor is yet to be released from his abductors. Fake news came in to distract us from beseeching heaven for his release. Pray for the wife also who is greatly traumatized."
In response to the violence and killings of Christians, the U.S. State Department has put Nigeria under its “special watch list” of countries that engage in or tolerate severe violations of religious freedom. Nigeria is also ranked as the 12th worst country for Christian persecution by Open Doors USA.
In a special report, titled “Nigeria: A Killing Field of Defenseless Christians,” released earlier this year, the Anambra-based nongovernmental organization International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law estimated that about 11,500 Christians had been killed in Nigeria since 2015 by Fulani herdsmen, the Boko Haram and highway bandits.
ISCLRL also estimated that 1,202 Christians were killed in the country in the first six months of 2020 by jihadists, radicalized herdsmen and others.