Kidnapping of American missionaries in Haiti highlights the perils of religious workers abroad

Haiti is also suffering from a string of political and natural disasters. Kidnappings are on the rise, with more than 300 reported in the first eight months of 2021, according to the United Nations.

Even so, the hostage-taking on Saturday of 17 people associated with an American Christian aid group by a gang in Port-au-Prince stands out for its brazenness. This incident also highlights the dangers that American religious missionaries face when seeking to convert people abroad. Here are other cases in which American religious workers were killed or kidnapped around the world.

Philippines

Martin and Gracia Burnham, Christian missionaries from Kansas who had been working in the Philippines for 17 years, were celebrating their wedding anniversary at a resort one night in 2001 when gunmen wearing ski masks abducted them and more than a dozen others. They were held captive by Abu Sayyaf, a jihadist group that demanded $1million in ransom to the Americans for more than one year.

A 2002 government operation to free them from the mountainous jungle hideout where they were being held ended in disaster, with Martin Burnham and another kidnapping victim, Filipino nurse Deborah Yap, both killed. Gracia Burnham survived after being shot in the leg.

El Salvador

In 1980, one year into a bloody civil war that pitted a military-led government against leftist rebels, four female Catholic missionaries from the United States were raped and killed in El Salvador.

Four Salvadoran national guardsmen were eventually convicted in the murders, with all later saying they were acting on “orders from above.”

The killings, which came just months after the slaying of Oscar Romero, the Catholic archbishop of San Salvador, were widely believed to be politically motivated. Many Catholic priests had condemned the brutal suppression of Salvadoran soldiers, which killed thousands of civilians who sympathized with rebels. The killings of three missionaries, a laywoman and a nun, sparked worldwide outrage and brought to light the widespread U.S. support of El Salvador’s military government.

Russia

Mormon missionaries Andrew Lee Propst and Travis Robert Tuttle were living in Saratov, Russia, in 1998 when they were invited to the apartment of a man who said he wanted to learn more about their faith. Instead of having a conversation about religion they were handcuffed, blindfolded, and then attacked.

The kidnappers demanded $300,000, but after news coverage of the incident mounted, the perpetrators released their victims with no ransom paid. The mastermind behind the abduction was sentenced for four years. The incident was later the subject of an American film, “The Saratov Approach.”

Somalia

Scott Adam had a successful Hollywood career — he had worked on film and television hits such as “The Goonies” and “The Love Boat” — when he had a religious awakening and became a Christian pastor.

He and his wife, Jean, dedicated their lives to spreading Scripture around the world, taking to the seas on their 58-foot yacht and distributing Bibles in different languages in far-flung corners of the globe.

The couple and two friends were sailing off the coast of Oman in 2011 when their yacht, Quest — named after a church where Scott Adam had worked — was attacked by Somali pirates.

U.S. The hostage-takers were negotiating with Navy warships, but the pirates killed and wounded the Adams and their friends.

Ecuador

In 1957, five American men flew to a remote rainforest in eastern Ecuador with the hope of bringing Christianity to the native Waorani people. After radio contact ceased with a base station, a search ensued, and the men were found dead, having been killed with spears. The story took an unexpected turn when Elisabeth Elliot returned to the area with her 3-year old daughter a few years later. For two years she lived with the Waorani, and later told LIFE magazine that her understanding of why the missionaries were murdered. She said that the killer was trying to protect his freedom and his way of living. “In America, we decorate a man for defending his country.”

Elliot went on to become a well-known speaker and author of 20 books, including one about Irish missionary Amy Carmichael, concerning the often complicated motivations of missionaries.

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