Cover Story

Let My People Go

It's a crisis that mission agencies hope never to face and a story they'd rather not have to tell. Missionaries, like other Americans working overseas, are soft targets for money-and power-hungry terrorists. For that reason, many Christian organizations have adopted no-ransom policies: If missionaries are taken hostage, they will not pay to get them out. Some groups even ask their workers to sign the policy before signing on to a stint overseas. But when abductions happen and children are left without fathers, what was non-negotiable can begin to look negotiable. And the question for a mission agency looms: How do we get our fathers back without putting more of God's servants in jeopardy?

Issue: "Missionary hostages," Feb. 20, 1998

Right now three missionaries are the longest held American hostages in any part of the world. Mark Rich, Dave Mankins, and Rick Tenenoff, serving in Panama with Florida-based New Tribes Mission, passed their fifth year of captivity on January 31. The three men were abducted together in 1993 by members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC. They were taken from Panama into a northeastern region of Colombia controlled by FARC. Word of their whereabouts and condition has ranged from scant to nonexistent since their first year of captivity.

In 1979, Americans became consumed with the plight of hostages in the Middle East. Anyone could tell you that 52 Americans were captive in Iran. They were held for nearly 15 months and released in 1981. Then a wave of hostage-taking during the war in Lebanon brought regular media reports about Terry Anderson, Tom Sutherland, Benjamin Weir, and Joseph Cicippio. Mr. Anderson, the Associated Press bureau chief in Beirut, was held by Islamic Jihad seven years, still the record for longest captivity.

With the New Tribes missionaries closing in on that record, the absence of media coverage is noteworthy. Despite a flurry of press releases from New Tribes and several television appearances by the three hostages' wives-all coinciding with the fifth anniversary of the hostage-taking-a sustained public campaign for their release has not materialized.

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The anniversary appearances were unusual, because New Tribes Mission and its chief consultant on the case, former Los Angeles Police Department hostage negotiator Bob Klamser, generally have steered away from publicity as well as from high-profile assistance.

Members of Congress, even some who concentrate on human rights and foreign affairs, know little about the case.

The response of Rich Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals is typical of those received from other Christian organizations WORLD contacted about the case. "No one has ever asked us to get involved. If someone were to make the need known, we would do something," said Mr. Cizik.

Official word from the State Department has been perfunctory. When WORLD contacted the State Department about the New Tribes case more than 18 months ago, consular affairs spokesman Nyda Budig said the department had been asked by New Tribes not to take any action on behalf of the hostages. At the same time, WORLD was asked by Mr. Klamser not to publish a story relating to negotiations for the hostages. WORLD agreed, conceding to Mr. Klamser's argument that negotiations for the hostages' release could be harmed by publicity.

As the clock ticks for the hostages, however, it is reasonable to ask what more may be done for them and why the U.S. government is not more aggressively pressing for their release. If lack of news protects delicate negotiations, it also hinders accountability.

Mr. Klamser told WORLD the crisis committee he heads for New Tribes is continuing a behind-the-scenes approach as a way to protect negotiations. He declined to describe any of those negotiations. "Part of the work is trying to find just who can help," said Mr. Klamser. "It goes on all the time, every single day. Every possible avenue continues to be pursued."

Others with expertise in hostage-taking and knowledge of Colombia say that the time for quiet efforts, if there was one, is over.

"Assurances that we are 'doing everything' are not enough," former hostage Terry Anderson told WORLD. He said he intended to make his own inquiries into the case after receiving a letter two weeks ago from one of the hostage wives. "She is very unhappy that nothing is happening," he said, "and that is really unfair." He declined to release the letter or divulge who sent it until he knew more about the hostages.

Andy Messing, director of the National Defense Council Foundation, said, "If I were New Tribes, I would be demonstrating in front of the Capitol and White House. I think it is a disgrace we are ignoring this."

Mr. Messing is a Green Beret who worked with the National Security Council in the Middle East during the Lebanon hostage crisis and has in recent years focused on the drug war in Colombia. He testified before the House International Relations Committee last year and submitted a report on FARC and its connection to Colombia's drug trade. The report, circulated among House members as well as the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, also outlined options for releasing hostages. Those options included the deployment of FBI anti-hostage units and Delta Force, the military's elite anti-terrorist unit, to carry out, in effect, a rescue mission.


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