A missionary group being held hostage in Haiti received a call on Sunday night from a man who said he is the leader of a gang and threatened to kill the hostages if his demands are not met.
The missionaries, who are part of the Christian group “Group for Christ,” spent the weekend praying and praying some more.
“What’s on the line is the lives of a number of innocent people,” said Rev. Derrick Story, executive director of the Oregon-based group known as Compassion International. The group does outreach programs to impoverished children in developing countries, including Haiti.
The caller on Sunday made about 10 calls to the missionaries’ phones, said Story, who declined to identify the organization’s current location.
He said the groups’ four full-time missionaries and nine church volunteers were in close quarters and were in a “very unsafe situation.”
The hostages are not being murdered, said Story, who said they did not realize “what the situation was or what was going on” until they were contacted by their families who had not heard from them.
“It’s a little surreal,” Story said. “There were a number of phone calls made at the same time, and as soon as we heard it we knew what the situation was and what the people were asking for.”
Based on information they gathered, Story said, the hostages were not harmed or tortured. But the group was “crying” and had been “physically drained,” Story said.
Three missionaries, including Jay Berrey, a Mission Viejo, California, native, were released. He is in good condition, Story said. One was released Sunday, a second was released early Monday morning and the third had already been released.
Story said it was unclear how many hostages were still inside the building Sunday night.
Brother Jimmy Caneweather, a chaplain for the Boston-based Congregation of Mutual Help, which is affiliated with Compassion International, said his congregants were looking after the remaining hostages Sunday and trying to arrange for transportation to receive help from church members in the U.S. and in Britain.
“We’re praying for them, of course,” Caneweather said. “Their spiritual lives have been so disrupted.”
He said the missionaries had many dark moments over the weekend.
“Obviously, a group that does what they do for a living – singing songs and baptizing people is … very stressful,” Caneweather said. “But we know that they love what they do, and they’re still holding out hope for the things God wants to do.”
An added complication, Caneweather said, is that the hostages did not have a release date. They could have been released later Sunday, but he said he hadn’t yet learned where and when they would leave the building.
The hostages’ captors are demanding that they be released, that they be returned to the host country and that they be brought to a religious service. They are not insisting that they be allowed to go back to school or that they be allowed to speak with their families, said Story.
“They wanted to know exactly what we had done with our children,” he said. “Are we not doing our best to bring this news to them? What are we doing to bring this news to them?”
More than 30 Compassion staff and volunteers went to Haiti on Feb. 1. The group does assistance in orphanages, medical clinics and ministry programs, Story said.
It was reported that the group was there because their facility had suffered damage when a previous tenant ran out of money and sought refuge in their building. The building has had to be evacuated twice and repairs have been made, he said.
Compassion International spokesman Barry Ingerson said Wednesday he couldn’t speak to details of the situation and could not confirm a number of details that media reports had said.
“In general, though, it’s important for you to know that Compassion would not ask a group of this size to do anything they felt wasn’t safe,” he said. “When you get that many people together for a voluntary effort like this, the things that happen are bound to be unexpected.”
It’s unclear whether the building has been looted, Story said.
Story said Compassion International will seek the assistance of Congress in hopes of getting aid to the group to reunite with their families.