The U.S. government is working with Haitian authorities to try to free 17 U.S. and Canadian missionaries from a U.S.-based missionary group, abducted by a gang notorious for killings, kidnappings, and extortion.
Witnesses said the missionaries from the Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries were forced out of their bus at gunpoint after visiting an orphanage Saturday outside Port-au-Prince. The group includes five men, seven women, and five children, the youngest just two years old.
"We request urgent prayer for the group of Christian Aid Ministries workers who were abducted while on a trip to visit an orphanage on Saturday," the ministry said.
Authorities suspect they were snatched by the notorious 400 Mawozo gang, whose name roughly translates to "400 inexperienced men," and has a reputation for taking hostages for ransom.
The gang was responsible for the kidnappings of five Catholic priests and two nuns earlier this year.
One expert told the New York Times the kidnappers could demand as much as $1 million per hostage for each of the 17, but he also said the kidnappers are not terrorists and he's confident the hostages would be freed unharmed if the ransom is paid.
The U.S. State Department is in contact with Haitian officials and the ministry told CNN the kidnappers have made contact with them. "We are seeking God's direction for a resolution, and authorities are seeking ways to help," the ministry said in a statement.
Former FBI agent and crisis management expert Richard Frankel said, "U.S. officials now are working I'm sure around the clock to free these missionaries."
Since the assassination of its president earlier this year, criminal gangs now rule the streets in Haiti, and kidnapping is one of the only growth industries.
This year, more than 360 people have been reported kidnapped with ransoms funding the gangs' activities.
"Their intent is to make money. They are doing these kidnappings for ransom, for money, no politics are involved, it's not terrorism. Their goal is to make as much money as they can from the hostage-taking," Frankel said.
Former U.S. Special Envoy to Haiti Daniel Foote said, "Kidnapping for ransom has become just part of the society. There were 20 kidnappings last Saturday and in one day in Port-au-Prince."
Unfortunately, missionaries are often the target of these crimes. It happened earlier this year with the shooting of an American missionary and in 2019 when an armed mob attacked a missions group.
Jeff Lee, who was in the group, said, "Came around a corner and all of sudden the road's blocked off, there's burning tires, there's debris, there's 100 to 120 people there heavily armed with guns, and as we approached they started firing these guns up into the air, and I'll be perfectly truthful, I thought at that moment, 'We're gonna die.'"
Another member of the group, Drew Pasler said, "The window blew out behind my head and a couple seconds later I hear (Dr. Doug Burbella) yell, 'I'm dying, I'm hit.'"
Burbella, seriously wounded in that attack, nearly died - doctors called it a miracle he survived.
Christian Aid Ministry offers Bible classes, runs a medical clinic, helps orphans, and distributes seeds to farmers, among other efforts in Haiti. It's considered one of the best-funded mission organizations on the island.
Christian Aid is asking believers to "Join us in praying for those who are being held hostage, the kidnappers and the families, friends, and churches of those affected."