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Priest held by jihadists made captivity a spiritual retreat

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Camille Dalmas - published on 01/23/24

Fr. Hans-Joachim Lohre, a missionary in Africa, was kidnapped in Bamako by an armed group and then held hostage. He was released in November 2023.

On November 22, 2022, German missionary Fr. Hans-Joachim Lohre was kidnapped by jihadists as he prepared to celebrate mass in Bamako, Mali (western Africa). At the site of the kidnapping, his parishioners found only the priest’s cross. He would remain a prisoner in the Sahel for 370 days, “accompanied by the Lord and your prayers.”

In Rome, at his first conference organized since his release, the priest spoke of what he described as a “sabbatical time” devoted to prayer and contemplation.

“A car arrived at full speed. I thought it was a bit early for Mass. A man got out and said to me, ‘Father, you’re being detained.’” It was 7:30 a.m. on the feast of Christ the King, when Father “Ha-Jo” — pronounced “Ayo” — was taken away. He was handcuffed, hooded, and loaded into the back of a car. A kidnapper told him, “Don’t be afraid; we’re not going to do anything to you. We’re good guys, we’re from Al Qaeda.”

After hours on the road, he was stripped of all his belongings — including liturgical vestments and materials, his Bible, and his rosary. Everything was taken from him, except for a T-shirt on which was written “I love my king,” a sign for him on this solemnity of Christ the King. “They burned everything (…) but they can’t take my faith,” he realized at the time.

An unusual “sabbatical”

As a young man, Fr. Ha-Jo had intended to become a pastoral worker and start a family back home in Germany. However, he felt irresistibly called to join the White Fathers (thus named after their white garb) after meeting them in his diocese. He was sent to Mali for the first time 40 years ago and has since spent 28 years there. He worked incessantly, particularly in the field of inter-religious dialogue. Eventually he became so fatigued that he asked his superiors for a sabbatical year not long before his abduction.

“When I was kidnapped, I told myself I was starting my sabbatical: no more appointments, no more work, no more conferences to organize, no stress… and lots of time to pray,” he says humorously. He knows that hostage priests are usually kidnapped for four years before being released, so he didn’t expect his release after just one year, a record and “a miracle” in his view.

Fr. Ha-Jo also remembered what he’d read Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s book on Auschwitz camp prisoners, Man’s Search for Meaning. In it, Frankl explains that the survivors turned either to hatred or resignation, except those “who gave meaning to that meaninglessness.”

Keeping the faith

Fr. Ha-Jo then decided to “entrust the day of his liberation to God.” He took as his reference point the words of Genesis, uttered by Joseph when rescuing his brothers, who had previously handed him over: “You had planned to do me harm: God turned it into good.” Fr. Ha-Jo no longer had a Bible, but he was fortunate enough to know many passages by heart to accompany him through his ordeal.

While being taken to a bush camp in the Sahel, the missionary learned that he had been kidnapped because of the presence of German soldiers helping the Malian army in Garo. A few days later, he was taken to another camp, home to other “very religious” jihadists. They tried to convert him by explaining that they wanted to build a Sharia-compliant society, “without debauchery and alcohol.” “I didn’t agree with them, but I admired their sincerity,” admits the priest. He answered their questions and defended his faith, without ever being perturbed or bullied.

Listening to Christmas Mass and following the WYD despite captivity

He was given enough to eat, including bread, a piece of which he saved for Mass. Fr. Ha-Jo was also granted a radio, with which he could listen to local stations as well as the English- and French-language broadcasts of Vatican Radio. He recounts how he was able to hear Pope Francis at Mass in the Vatican on Christmas Day: “I was ecstatic.”

He was also able to follow all the major Catholic events of the year: the WYD in Lisbon, the Synod… But his greatest joy came when he picked up a Malian radio station claiming that Muslims and Christians were praying together for his release. “I’ve never felt more missionary than at that moment,” he says with emotion.

At the end of December, he was taken to the desert, where he was entrusted to the care of Tuaregs. He suffered a little from the cold at night, despite the gift of a cashmere coat from one of his jailers, but then he began a “real prayer retreat.”

He spent “22 hours out of 24” lying under a tarpaulin, only able to stretch his legs on a path marked out by his guards. Later, he was taken to a mountainous region. There he met up with other hostages. Throughout this period, he was fed and cared for… and was able to devote himself entirely to prayer.

Celebrating a 2-hour Mass every day

His typical day began with a Mass lasting over two hours. He began by invoking the saints of the day, as well as the three saints who accompanied him throughout his captivity: St. Bakhita, who was kidnapped like him and managed to pardon her captors; St. Charles de Foucauld, apostle of the Tuareg people; and his patron saint, St. John the Baptist. Then he continued with the Ordinary of the Mass, before reciting the Gospels in his head, then preaching. “I imagined myself in one of the communities in Bamako.” 

Afterwards, he would devote half an hour to prayer intentions, praying for everything he heard on the radio, as well as for his “Malian brothers.” He then recited the Offertory and the Eucharistic Prayer. He was able to consecrate the bread he kept for the occasion, and an “imaginary wine,” as his jailers refuse to give him any. “It couldn’t be valid, but for me it was the real Mass,” he says.

At midday, Fr. Ha-Jo prayed the Rosary, and then in the afternoon he devoted two hours to contemplative meditation. He adds that he prayed in particular so that “those who were in anguish” because of his abduction would receive some of the serenity he had found in his captivity.

Thankful for release

Finally, he was told that he would be released, which happened on November 26, 2023. Father Lohre is now resting, awaiting a new mission — which, he is sad to say, will not be in Mali. He says he’s happy to have been able to see his 92-year-old mother again, who was hospitalized at the time of his abduction. And he thanks all those who supported him: “What I am now, I am thanks to your prayers.”

Tags:
AfricaInspiring storiesIslamist MilitantsPriest
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