A bishop has taken personal charge of negotiations to secure the release of a retired parish priest kidnapped in northern Nigeria five days ago.
In an interview with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto described talking to the men who abducted 75-year-old Father Joseph Keke from St Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church, Malumfashi, Katsina State in the early hours of Friday, 21st May.
He said: “We have established contact with the kidnappers and we are talking.
“It is one of the most painful experiences, talking and pleading with hardened criminals and murderers who, in a more civilised environment should be locked away for life, but before whose mercy you stand.
“From the voice of the man, he may be in his 30s. On Saturday, they asked for ₦100m [£172,000] and then came down to ₦50m [£86,000] and that is the way it goes. You make an offer and it keeps going on and on.
“As the security agencies will tell you, these men are just outright criminals, often working with locals in the communities who serve as informants. They just identify soft targets and their primary motivation is money.
“We have one of our persons negotiating with them, but it is a painful experience, often traumatic because of the inhuman ways they speak and the threats they make. Our only weapon is prayer.”
The kidnappers also killed Father Alphonsus Bello, who succeeded Father Keke as parish priest of St Vincent Ferrer. His body was found dumped in farmland behind the Catechetical Training School in Malumfashi.
Bishop Kukah said: “Father Bello’s death is part of the senseless and endless losses that have engulfed our nation.
“We are all literally under the sword in Nigeria, a country that is being consumed by a barbaric horde of humanity.
“It is a sad loss but we as Christians and we as priests always look ahead towards the promise that lies ahead.
“Our consolation is that, we ordained three deacons only a few months back and we have five lined up for later in the year.
“We miss him, but the Lord’s work continues.”
Bishop Kukah was also extremely critical of the Nigerian government’s handling of the ongoing Islamist insurgency that has killed up to 12,000 Christians since June 2015 according to Nigerian human rights organisation Intersociety.
He said: “The federal government is entangled in this web of confusion and as I have said several times before, the only distinction with the terrorists is in strategy.
He added: “They have no wish to create an egalitarian, integrated and united country. Their focus is the ascendancy of Islam even in a form that over 80 percent of ordinary Muslims do not support. We are in the throttle of the Salafist variant or strain of Islam.”