Thirteen days before 16 Americans and a Canadian were brazenly kidnapped at gunpoint by a notorious gang on the eastern outskirts of Haiti’s capital last weekend, a prominent pastor and two of his congregants were abducted on the streets of Port-au-Prince.
Pastor Jean Pierre Ferrer Michel, a founding member of the church Jesus Center in the Delmas 29 neighborhood, was grabbed on Sunday, Oct. 3, by armed men dressed as Haiti National Police officers while in his four-wheel-drive Nissan Patrol in the parking lot of his Port-au-Prince church. It was just before 8 a.m.
More than three weeks later, Michel, who is a U.S. citizen, still has not been freed along with one of his male congregants, even though an undisclosed ransom amount has been paid, his family said. Michel’s captivity has largely been ignored except for mentions in the local Haitian press.
“They don’t talk about it, like they are talking about the case of the group of 17. But this man is an American citizen, too,” said a family friend who spoke to the Miami Herald on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing case. “It’s not the same attention that the 17 people who they abducted in Croix-des-Bouquets are getting.”
The lack of attention compelled Michel’s wife, Maryse Michel, to release a video Tuesday in Haitian Creole pleading for his release.
“They have yet to release him after 17 days,” Michel said, denying rumors that her husband was back at home. “He’s without his medication. He’s an old man who is nearly 80 years old, and doesn’t have a lot of years in front of him. I’ve come to plead, and I came to ask everyone who it concerns: Release the pastor. Release my husband. Give the children back their father. Give the family back their brother because we did everything already. They are still holding them. They have to let them go. We did everything we were supposed to do.”
The family friend said both the U.S. Embassy and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been contacted about the abduction because of Michel’s American citizenship. While the gang released the female congregant, it continues to hold Michel and the other abducted church member hostage.
The gang’s initial ransom request was more than $15 million for the three, including $8 million for Michel.
“When they say dollars, you don’t know if they are talking about American dollars or Haitian,” said the family friend, who noted the gang behind the abduction has never identified itself. “They asked us for a ransom, the two families came together and paid a ransom and after we paid it, they called and said the money wasn’t enough and they cannot release them. Since then, there has been no contact.”
On Wednesday, there was still no word about the group of 17 missionaries with Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries, who were marking their fourth day in captivity after being abducted after returning from a visit to an orphanage. The gang behind their abduction, 400 Mawozo, has asked for $1 million per hostage to release them.
According to the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Haiti, 119 kidnappings were registered during the first 16 days of this month. The center said there were at least 782 kidnappings between Jan. 1 and Oct. 16, compared to 796 all of last year. The numbers are estimates because Haitian kidnappings often go unreported.
At least 40 of the reported cases, said Gédéon Jean, the head of the center, involve religious leaders and their congregants. They have found themselves taken hostage after gangs burst into their churches during services, invaded their homes or took them while they were traveling in the capital.
“The gangs do what they want, when they want and where they want to,” said Jean, noting that a week before Michel’s kidnapping, a deacon, Sylner Lafaille, was shot to death when he tried to stop his wife’s kidnapping at the entrance to Port-au-Prince’s First Baptist Church.
In April, 400 Mawozo hijacked a bus carrying five priests and two nuns, including two French citizens, near where the Christian missionaries were abducted.
They were on their way to a priest’s installation. The group was finally freed after 20 days. The abduction happened 10 days after a group of armed men stormed a Seventh Day Adventist service days before Easter, and as it was being live-streamed on Facebook, and kidnapped the pastor, a well-known pianist and two technicians.
None of the incidents generated the kind of international headlines the current abduction of the missionaries has, or even the attention from U.S. authorities. The White House has said President Joe Biden is personally getting briefed on the case daily.
The different level of attention given to Haitian kidnap victims and Americans taken hostage is not lost on Haitians. Some have pointed out that, for example, the same day that Christian missionaries were abducted, there were other kidnappings also reported in the capital and they continue to be reported.
Pastor Lemète Zéphyr of the Haitian Protestant Federation said the abductions are weighing heavily on society.
“When they do it in the middle of a church service, they show that they are powerful, they are not afraid of anything and have all of the guarantees that nothing will happen to them,” he said of the gangs. “So it’s up to everyone to figure out how to save themselves, and one of the things it provokes is a mass exodus; everyone who feels that they are under threat because they are an intellectual or a public figure is left with no choice but to seek refuge abroad.”
Zéphyr said he can’t help but think that the kidnappings have a political element to them.
“I believe the way the gangs are operating it’s part of a political project,” Zéphyr said. “All of the sectors that can rally people, bring them out into the streets to protest, they make an effort to intimidate them, to make you scared so you don’t organize, you don’t reflect on the problems.”
This story was originally published October 20, 2021 7:32 PM.