NIGER: Growing fears that kidnapped priest is in hands of Islamist extremist

Archive image of a priest celebrating Holy Mass in Maradi Diocese, Niger in 2017
Archive image of a priest celebrating Holy Mass in Maradi Diocese, Niger in 2017

A priest has spoken out about the shock kidnapping of one of his fellow missionaries in Niger by Islamist extremists a few days ago.

Father Mauro Armanino of the Society of African Missions (SMA) spoke to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need about the kidnapping of Father Pierluigi Maccalli on Monday evening (17th October).

Italian priest Father Maccalli was abducted from the mission station where he was working, 77 miles (125 km) from the capital Niamey.

“It was a swift and coordinated attack.”

Father Armanino said: “It was a swift and coordinated attack. The abductors were familiar with the movements of Father Pierluigi and had chosen him as their victim.”

He added: “On Monday evening John [another SMA Father, originally from India] arrived here at our regional headquarters in Niamey, visibly traumatised.

“He himself lives in another small room, just a few metres away from that of Father Pierluigi, and he told us how the abductors had simply knocked on [Father Pierluigi Maccalli’s] door, seized the priest and then left again firing shots into the air.

“From the way they went about it, it was clear that their target was the European priest, since otherwise they would not have left his Indian confrère behind.”

Father Maccalli only returned to Niger a few days before he was kidnapped.

Father Armanino said: “I myself went to meet him at the airport last Saturday. The kidnappers must have known this, which is why they acted when they did.

“Certainly it does not help that the government, although well aware of the presence of these armed gangs in the area, has done nothing about it.”

According to Father Armanino, one possible motive for the attack was to frighten Christian communities in one of the few areas of Niger where Christianity is the majority faith.

“…there are no longer any limits to their violence”

He said: “The fact that they have now attacked a Catholic priest for the first time, shows that there are no longer any limits to their violence.”

Shortly after Father Maccalli was seized, there was an attack on the convent of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary. The Sisters saved themselves, by fleeing or hiding in the house.

Father Armanino said: “And they gave important information about the kidnappers who, while looting their home, spoke in the language of the Peul ethnic group.” Peul is the French term for Fulani.

Father Armanino believes that Father Maccalli is in the hands of Islamist Fulani herdsmen.

Extremist Fulani attacks have claimed thousands of victims in neighbouring Nigeria, including two priests who were killed last April.

Father Armanino added that Father Maccalli is probably still be in Niger, as the kidnappers would have been unable to take their hostage to Burkina Faso, as the nearby border is strictly guarded.

But there are concerns that the kidnappers may be able to reach Mali.

“The group that abducted [Father] Pierluigi was a small group. But if they were to succeed in getting to Mali, the situation would be much worse for our confrère.”

According to the SMA Father many members of the neighbouring country’s Fulani community would help the kidnappers.

Father Armanino said: “It was in Mali of course that the Colombian religious Sister Gloria Cecilia Narvaez Argoti was abducted in February 2017, and she is still being held prisoner today.

“And so we are fearful that the abduction of Padre Pierluigi could likewise drag on for a long time”