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Swiss Missionary Executed, Fellow Hostages Freed

Beatrice Stöckli was kidnapped by Islamist extremists in Timbuktu, Mali, in January 2016.
Swiss Missionary Executed, Fellow Hostages Freed
Image: Gonzalo Fuentes / Pool Photo via AP

A Swiss missionary Beatrice Stöckli—kidnapped from Timbuktu, Mali, in January 2016—was killed only weeks before other hostages were freed by Islamist extremists, in an apparent prisoner-hostage swap negotiated by the new transitional government in Mali.

News of her execution came from Sophie Petronin, a 75-year-old French aid worker, freed on October 8, who had apparently been held by the same, or a linked Islamist militia group. (Petronin has converted to Islam and now calls herself Mariam.)

The Swiss Foreign Ministry expressed its sorrow that Stöckli, a single woman in her late 40s, was “apparently killed by kidnappers of the Islamist terrorist organization Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslim (JNIM) about a month ago.” It said the exact circumstances of the killing are currently still unclear.

“It was with great sadness that I learned of the death of our fellow citizen,” said Swiss Federal Councilor Ignazio Cassis. “I condemn this cruel act and express my deepest sympathy to the relatives.”

The Swiss authorities said they “worked over the past four years, together with the relevant Malian authorities and with international partners, to ensure that the Swiss citizen was released and can return to her family. Members of the Federal Council have personally and repeatedly lobbied the relevant Malian authorities for her release. An interdepartmental task force under the leadership of the Foreign Affairs Ministry was deployed. The task force also included representatives of … [the police, the intelligence services] … and the Federal Prosecutor’s Office. In addition, the authorities were in constant contact with the victim’s family.”

Now, they say they will do all they can to find out details of exactly how she died, and to return her body, or her remains, to her family.

Who was Beatrice Stöckli?

A Malian church leader, who said he’d worked with Beatrice Stöckli, told World Watch Monitor in 2012 that the missionary settled in Timbuktu in 2000, working for a Swiss church, before starting work alone, unaffiliated with any church. According to Evangelical Focus, Stöckli first served with Germany-based missionary group Neues Leben Ghana, (New Life Ghana).

The church leader reported that Stöckli had led a quiet life in Abaradjou, a popular district of Timbuktu, but known to have been frequented by armed jihadist groups. She was described as sociable, particularly among women and children, and she used to sell flowers and hand out Christian material.

Stöckli was taken from her home before dawn on January 8, 2016, by armed men in four pickup trucks, according to confidential sources.

This was the second time she’d been kidnapped from Timbuktu; the first time in 2012 was when northern Mali was occupied by armed Islamist groups. She was released 10 days later, following mediation led by neighboring Burkina Faso. At her mother and brother’s urging, she had returned to Switzerland in 2012, but she soon returned to Mali, saying, ”It’s Timbuktu or nothing”.

The Swiss government had apparently also warned her against return.

Stöckli appears in several videos appealing to her government

In late January 2016, a masked speaker with a British accent claimed responsibility for Stöckli’s kidnap on behalf of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM): “Beatrice Stöckli is a Swiss nun (sic) who declared war against Islam in her attempt to Christianise Muslims.”

The conditions of her release included setting free AQIM fighters jailed in Mali, and one of the group’s leaders detained at the International Criminal Court at The Hague. The most important condition, the speaker said, was that Stöckli did not return to any Muslim land preaching Christianity.

But Switzerland apparently demanded her release without conditions.

AQIM released a second similar video in mid-June 2016.

A year after her capture, in Jan 2017, AQIM released a third video of a woman—head covered by a black veil—who is identified as Stöckli. It was allegedly recorded on New Year’s Eve 2017.

Speaking in French, with a weary, barely audible voice and her face blurred, she greeted her family and thanked the Swiss government “for all the efforts they have made”.

On July 1, 2017, a coalition of jihadist groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda released a video showing six foreign hostages, including three missionaries, hours before France’s President Macron’s visit to Mali, when France agreed to help support anti-terrorist efforts in the Sahel.

According to the US-based monitoring group SITE, the undated footage was posted by Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (also known as the Group to Support Islam and Muslims).

The jihadist network had formed in March 2017, when leaders of Ansar Dine, the Macina Liberation Front, Al-Mourabitoun and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) announced their commitment to form a common platform and pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda.

Stöckli was one of three missionaries shown; the other two were Colombian nun Gloria Argoti, in her sixties and an 80-something Australian, Ken Elliott. This video was the first proof of life for Argoti, who was kidnapped in Mali a year after Stöckli.

The other three in the July 2017 video were Stephen McGowan (since freed), a Romanian mining engineer; Iulian Ghergut, kidnapped in Burkina Faso in 2015; and Sophie Pétronin—proof that the French and Swiss women were held together, at least at that time.

Undeterred by a previous kidnapping

Armed members of the militant Islamist group Ansar Dine handed over Stöckli to Swiss diplomats in April 24, 2012, after a private militia kidnapped her on April 15, 2012, Reuters reported.

Before Tuareg rebels and Islamist extremists had captured Timbuktu, on April 1, 2012, most Westerners had left for fear of being kidnapped and passed on to Al-Qaeda cells. But Stöckli had refused to leave.

AQIM has been holding Westerners for millions of dollars in ransom payments from kidnaps in recent years.

Ansar Dine militants took custody of Stöckli after a shoot-out with a private militia that had seized her and wanted to sell her to AQIM. Ansar Dine, which had imposed sharia in areas under its control in the north, then handed Stöckli to the Swiss government without demanding a ransom, according to Agence France-Presse.

The International Criminal Court said in April 2012 it might launch investigations into crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Mali, including killings, abductions, rapes, and conscription of children.

Christians, a minority in Mali, have paid a heavy price for the insecurity in the region. For most of 2012, armed Islamist groups ruled the north, banning the practice of other religions and desecrating and looting churches and other places of worship. Among those who fled were about 300 Christians, most of whom found shelter in Bamako in southern Mali where local churches worked together to care for them.

Mali is No. 29 on the 2020 World Watch List published by Open Doors International, which monitors the persecution of Christians globally.

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