Philippine Army troops have yet to rescue an American missionary couple and a Filipina nurse held hostage by Abu Sayyaf since last May.
Members of the violent Muslim group kidnapped New Tribes Mission workers Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kansas, from a tourist resort on the island of Palawan in the western Philippines. Seventeen other hostages have since been killed or released for ransom. The United States has linked Abu Sayyaf with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network.
The Philippine military initially set a December 16 goal for winning the release of the Burnhams, coinciding with the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Philippine President Gloria Arroyo then promised to rescue the Burnhams by Christmas. Arroyo now says the military will destroy Abu Sayyaf by the end of March. Lt. Gen. Roy Cimatu says bad weather made it difficult for the Philippine marines to meet the December 16 deadline.
New Tribes spokesman Scott Ross says the agency continues to lobby the United States and the Philippines to work for the safe return of the captured missionaries. "We met several senators and representatives in Washington," Ross says. "We have caught the ear of the State Department, and even that of President Bush."
NTM has set up a crisis management team, and its leader has been in Manila for most of the last six months.
The apparently poor condition of the Burnhams has given the case a new urgency. On November 24, Arlyn de la Cruz-Collantes, a freelance journalist, filmed the Burnhams at an Abu Sayyaf hideout. Both had lost much weight. Martin reportedly told the journalist, "If only there is a possibility that you could take [Gracia] with you now, that would lighten my load. I hate to see her in this condition."
Cruz-Collantes said Gracia told her she wanted a decent bath, with no one watching. Cruz-Collantes also quoted Gracia as saying, "We are glad you are here. At least our family will be able to see how we are here. Our government will see for themselves."
U.S. officials sent several hundred troops to train the Philippine Army to fight the extremists. Abu Sayyaf is reportedly holding the three captives on Basilan Island, 560 miles south of Manila. American troops will hold joint exercises with 1,200 Philippine soldiers there over the next 6 to 12 months.
Gen. Honesto Isleta, former Philippine press undersecretary, says Abu Sayyaf guerrillas, estimated to number fewer than 500, are contained. Philippine Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said he expects to see "Abu Sayyaf neutralized and the hostages recovered."
In April 2000, Abu Sayyaf kidnapped 21 hostages, including 10 Westerners, from a Malaysian resort. They were freed five months later after a Libyan intermediary paid $25 million in a "gesture of goodwill."
A Filipino hostage rescued in October said the group was demanding $2 million for the Burnhams. Officials in Basilan later said the guerrillas were seeking $1 million. Despite persistent reports that the group was negotiating through some intermediaries, both the Philippines and the United States governments have said they will not be parties to ransom. Abu Sayyaf professes to fight for an Islamic state in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic Philippines.
To protect future missionaries, New Tribes has a policy against paying ransoms. The agency recently concluded that three missionaries kidnapped eight years ago in Panama are dead (CT, Nov. 12, 2001, p. 33).
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
New Tribes Mission Online has regular updates on the Burnhams. New Tribes also has a special report on the three missionaries kidnapped in Panama and now believed to be dead.
For further developments on the Burnhams, see Christianity Today'sWeblog, The Wichita Eagle, Yahoo's full coverage and ABS-CBN News.
According to The BBC, Abu Sayyaf ("Sword of God") has made an industry of kidnapping and the Philippines has become the kidnapping capital of the world.
Christianity Today coverage of the Burnham kidnapping includes:
Kidnapped Missionaries Reported SafeBut danger increasing for Burnhams—and for workers around the world. (July 26, 2001)
New Tribes Missionaries KidnappedMuslim rebels in Philippines threaten to kill Martin and Gracia Burnham and 18 others if military intervenes. (May 29, 2001)
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