Top LDS Church leaders in Salt Lake City are crediting Nigerian church leaders for negotiating the release of four Nigerian LDS missionaries late Wednesday night in the west African nation, after the abductors were paid for expenses incurred during the time the men were held.
The four are Elders Akande Adebayo Egunjobi and Emeka Henry Ekufu of Lagos and Elders Uchenna Anthony Eze and Hope Aiboni Isaiah of Enugu, Nigeria.
The men, all in their early to mid-20s, were abducted Saturday from their apartment in the village of Emohua, near Port Harcourt, where the mission headquarters for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is located.
During a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Elder M. Russell Ballard of the church's Council of the Twelve told reporters the missionaries were in good shape when they were released at 2:40 p.m. MST on Wednesday, which was 10:40 p.m. in Port Harcourt.
Emphasizing the church doesn't pay ransom for any members who are abducted, he said the church was asked "to help pay for the food and care of the missionaries. The total cost involved was $810 to reimburse the expenses that those who were holding them hostage had incurred."
Elder Ballard said the bishop of the ward in which the missionaries served Bishop Sancho N. Chukwu of the Emohua 1st Ward was the main negotiator working for the church to secure the men's release, with help from other African church leaders.
Bishop Sancho "talked several times with the kidnappers and met with one of them once," according to Elder Quentin L. Cook, executive director of the church's Missionary Department. He also spoke at the press conference and called Bishop Sancho's efforts "heroic."
The missionaries stayed at the bishop's home Wednesday night, and they will continue to serve the remainder of their missions within Nigeria, Elder Cook said. Their emotional needs will be tended to by local church leaders before they return to their assignments, he said.
Elder Cook said local tribal leaders were involved in helping secure the missionaries' release in concert with LDS leaders there, but there was no police involvement in the negotiations.
Elder Ballard said the captors "came to the conclusion very quickly that they had taken the wrong people. This was the first time anything like this with a religious organization has occurred," and the local community was upset about the abduction. He said he has no details about who the abductors were or what their motives were, and the questions are moot at this point.
The missionaries are among scores of people abducted in the Niger Delta region since Jan. 1, many of them oil workers who organized gangs and local thugs believe may bring a hefty ransom. Elder Cook said it's possible the abductors were conducting a "copy-cat" of previous abductions.
Elder Ballard said the missionaries were treated well during their time in captivity, and Bishop Sancho had made contact with them early Wednesday and found they had not been mistreated. He said he believes the missionaries spent their time "teaching the discussions, teaching the lessons" about the beliefs of the LDS Church to their captors.
He credited not only the local leaders, but the "power of prayer" for their release. "Heaven had something to do with this wonderful result."
The church has dealt with one previous missionary abduction in recent years. Two American missionaries were abducted in Russia in 1998 and were later released.
Other instances have seen some missionaries "detained for a few hours here and there" over the years, Elder Ballard said. He noted that even with occasional problems that arise, a study the church has done shows young men are "safer serving missions than they are staying at home."
In addition to missionary efforts in Nigeria, the LDS Church has provided much in the way of humanitarian aid to the people there, Elder Ballard said, most of it done quietly and without fanfare. Most recently, the church was instrumental in publicizing and helping to conduct a measles and polio vaccination campaign last fall.
Bruce Olsen, managing director of public affairs, said while the church works quietly as a humanitarian organization in the region, the work is often noted by various community leaders "so people feel better about us and understand us better.""It's a great day for us," Elder Ballard said, smiling, after several days of following the missionary developments around the clock. "And it's going to be a great night."
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