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At your own risk

Missionaries feel the tension of living in a terrorist's world--and the frustration of not knowing where to turn for help

When missionary Ray Rising was taken captive by Colombian guerrillas, those remaining at Wycliffe's Lomalinda compound "began living like security agents," another missionary reported. A professional security consultant was brought in to train workers in protecting themselves. "Everybody's attention was taken off the work," he said, and ultimately the translation center was closed. Recently the property was sold off.

A faction in Africa put a $1,000 reward on the head of any American as a way to ward off Western interference in the fighting between tribal factions in Burundi, Zaire, and Rwanda.

In southern Bolivia, the Swedish Free Mission finds it may be squeezed out of service in a political power play. The mission has a longstanding and respected record of working among the Mataco Indians. Ranchers, however, want access to the tribe's lands and they see the mission in the way. So they've been lobbying the government to get rid of them.

It's not an exaggeration, mission agencies report, to say that missionaries in the world's troubled spots are facing--if not increasing numbers of threats--at least new kinds of danger their training sometimes did not prepare them to avoid. Missionaries encounter antipathy fueled by resentment over Western wealth. They are seen as cash cows for guerrillas in search of money for weapons and survival. They are maltreated for having an agenda that may transcend prevailing political trends.

A State Department travel warning issued earlier this month for Colombia reflects the ongoing danger to Wycliffe missionaries and other Americans in that country: "The U.S. Embassy has received information that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) may conduct hostile operations against Colombian Government offices and installations in the coming days in the city of Cali and surrounding areas. Traditionally, the FARC has also targeted foreigners and multinational companies. Guerrilla operations could include kidnappings. All U.S. citizens in the Cali area or travelers to that vicinity are advised to exercise caution at this time."

This was the third specified warning issued by the United States for Colombia this year. The terrorist FARC is the same group that kidnapped Mr. Rising, the Wycliffe electronics technician, two years ago and held him until last June.

Mr. Rising told the Minnesota Christian Chronicle, "They never told me exactly why they took me, but I knew later on why they had taken me--they demanded ransom." Most mission organizations have a stated policy of refusing to pay ransom for their workers, including Wycliffe. They point out that their people would become automatic teller machines for terrorist causes if they did not.

Mr. Rising said he understands the policy against paying ransom, but he conceded, "When you're out in the woods and you hear helicopters and bombs dropping and machine gun fire and mortar fire, you wish somebody would just pay and get you out of there."

The extended efforts of private citizens to secure the release of hostages beg the question of what action the government is taking. According to Bureau of Consular Affairs spokeswoman Nyda Budig, the State Department, while raising unresolved cases involving American citizens with local authorities, did not take an aggressive role in campaigning for Mr. Rising's release because, she said, Wycliffe had its own crisis management team working toward his release. Given the election-year debacle Jimmy Carter faced over hostages in Iran, most administrations since have been constitutionally predisposed to seeing the problem of U.S. hostages disappear. Most mission agencies, likewise, would prefer that their work on foreign soil be kept arm's length from the image the U.S. government has in some countries, particularly among terrorist or Marxist factions.

New Tribes Mission, as well, is working largely on its own to secure the release of three missionaries also held by guerrillas in Colombia. They were captured in January 1993. Macon Hare Jr., who was New Tribes field chairman in Colombia when the men were kidnapped, said a crisis committee similar to one used by Wycliffe has been working inside the country ever since to win back the Americans.

New Tribes has been critical of private international human-rights organizations that have contacts among the guerrilla groups. Despite repeated contacts with several working in Colombia, the missionary agency reported this month decidedly "mixed results."

The human-rights group Pax Cristi had helped to contact the guerrillas seeking release of the New Tribes workers. Amnesty International--which just completed an investigation of human-rights violations in Colombia blasting that country's government "while remaining silent on obvious and horrendous abuses by the guerrillas," New Tribes pointed out--ignored requests by New Tribes to inquire about the missionaries in the course of the investigation. The International Red Cross, the agency said in a press statement, "also remains inactive on our case, claiming to be doing what they can while failing to deliver letters from the wives to their husbands and failing to confirm the status of our three missionaries."

Anti-Western sentiment remains high in Colombia. Missionaries feel the brunt of it; however, four other foreign nationals--a German, an Italian, and two Brazilians--were kidnapped the first week of August in addition to four Americans the State Department says are still being held.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy is senior editor of WORLD Magazine and the author of They Say We Are Infidels. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.