Suspected Fulani Islamists kidnap missionary in Niger

“IT WAS A SWIFT and coordinated attack. The kidnappers were familiar with the movements of Father Pierluigi and had chosen him as their victim.” This was the account given by Father Mauro Armanino of the Society of the African Missions (SMA) in Niger. He spoke with international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need about his fellow missionary, Italian Father Pierluigi Maccalli, who was abducted Sept. 17, 2018 at the mission station where he worked, some 80 miles from the capital of Niger, Niamey.

Faithful in Niger

It was a well-planned attack that took only a matter of minutes, according to Father John, who is from India and who lives and works in the same mission station where Father Maccalli is based. “Yesterday evening, Father John arrived here at our regional headquarters in Niamey, visibly traumatized,” Father Armanino told ACN.

“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 the door, grabbed hold of the priest and then left, firing shots into the air. From the way the abductors went about it, it was clear that their target was the European priest, since otherwise they would not have left his Indian confrere behind,” he added.

Father Pierluigi had only just returned from a rest period in Italy. “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,” said Father Armanino.

According to Father Armanino, one possible motive for the abduction, apart from the likelihood of a ransom demand – which has not yet been made– and the attempt to gain international media attention, is the desire to frighten the Christian community in one of the very small areas of Niger in which Christianity is the majority faith. “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,” the priest said.

Corroboration of the thesis that the abduction was an anti-Christian attack has come from the fact that another small group of criminals, shortly afterwards, attacked the convent of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary. Fortunately, the sisters were able to elude them, some by escaping the premises and others by hiding inside the house. “In fact it was [the sisters] who were able to provide us with important information about the attackers, who were speaking the language of the Peul ethnic group while they were ransacking the convent,” Father Armanino explained. Peul is the French term used to describe Fulani tribesmen in Niger.

Consequently, it is likely that Father Pierluigi is being held by the same Islamist herdsmen who have murdered thousands of people in neighboring Nigeria, where they have launched numerous attacks against Christian villages, even murdering two priests last April.

Padre Armanino went on to explain that for the moment it is believed that the kidnappers have not yet succeeded in moving their hostage to Burkina Faso, given that the nearby frontier is very strictly patrolled. It is believed Father Pierluigi is still in Niger, but the fear is that his abductors may be able to reach Mali, where they have more support. “The group that abducted Pierluigi was a small group. But if they were to make it to Mali, the situation would be much worse for our confrere,” Father Armanino explained. In Mali, there are many other members of the Fulani community there, who would give support to his abductors.

“It was in Mali of course that the Colombian Sister Gloria Cecilia Narvaez Argoti was abducted in February 2017; 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,” the missionary said.
—Marta Petrosillo