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Kidnappings of missionaries has long been a thorny problem for the United States

The U.S. has struggled to develop a coherent strategy to address — and prevent — kidnappings of Americans abroad

People gather for a vigil in Hart, Mich., on Sunday, to pray for the return of more than a dozen missionaries and family members who were kidnapped by a gang in Haiti more than a week ago. Among those taken were four children and a parent from Hart. (Anna Liz Nichols/AP)

Sixteen American missionaries affiliated with Christian Aid Ministries are being held for ransom in Haiti by 400 Mawozo, a criminal gang notorious for large-scale, violent kidnappings. Americans have been understandably fixated on the plight of the captives (including five children), who were returning from a visit to an orphanage when kidnappers attacked their vehicle. Much of the U.S. news coverage of the missionaries’ seizure has focused on Haiti’s descent into lawlessness, with many stories examining the vast scope of kidnappings that have recently gripped the country.

Responding to reports of the missionaries’ kidnapping, a State Department spokesperson said, “The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State.” Haitian officials revealed that the kidnappers sought $1 million per captive on Oct. 19. The same day, Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserted that the government was “relentlessly focused” on the hostages and securing their release.

The U.S. government generally benefits from the efforts of missionaries and other expatriates. American missionaries from Christian Aid Ministries have provided humanitarian assistance to Haitians, offering medical, educational and nutritional support to people in great need. These missionaries’ charitable work could bring greater economic and political stability, while also potentially enhancing the “soft power” of the United States and bolstering its reputation in Haiti.

Despite its power, events such as kidnappings expose the United States as unable to ensure the safety of its citizens in the world. Abductions therefore present enormous challenges — a bright media spotlight signals to kidnappers that they have seized a valuable target, and U.S. policymakers have long argued that paying ransoms, as many of their European allies do, only makes the world less safe for Americans.

The history of American missionaries reveals how kidnapping has been used to threaten even the most powerful governments in the world, and that for the United States, a military superpower, it has exposed weaknesses that might surprise us.

In the first half-century of U.S. history, missionaries represented a significant percentage of Americans who traveled outside their country’s borders. Missionaries who journeyed to India, the Sandwich Islands (present-day Hawaii), China and Liberia facilitated cultural exchanges, as they were often the first Americans many people in those countries met. Similarly, missionary correspondence home was a principal way that many Americans learned about people unlike themselves.

Nineteenth-century missionaries enjoyed the formal and informal support of the U.S. government, which benefited from their efforts to spread Christianity and “civilization” around the world. American missionaries also disseminated their values and ideals, including a belief in American exceptionalism, which helped advance U.S. interests as the nation expanded its economic and imperial reach.

But American missionaries also became targets for kidnapping. Proselytizing often involved work in the field, and some steps taken to reach possible converts put missionaries at risk. Similarly, their unofficial status in foreign countries left them unprotected. Missionaries offered soft targets to groups seeking to make money quickly or advance a political cause.

The first, and for decades the most infamous, kidnapping of an American missionary involved Ellen Stone, who was taken in Macedonia in 1901. At the time, Stone had worked in the Ottoman Empire for over 20 years, distributing Christian printed materials and offering information on child care and public health. Her case garnered attention from U.S. officials, newspapers and the American public, especially when Stone’s captors, Bulgarian nationalists, demanded an astronomical ransom payment.

At the time, the United States did not have a policy for how it should respond to the kidnapping of a U.S. citizen overseas. Independent of the government, Stone’s family worked with the religious newspaper Christian Herald to raise money to pay off the kidnappers. Ultimately, after several months of tension, U.S. government representatives facilitated the payment of $66,000 in gold for Stone’s release and then immediately sought reimbursement from the Ottoman government.

After Stone’s release, observers argued that the press coverage of her case as well as the Christian Herald’s success in fundraising had actually lengthened her captivity. The media fascination with her case demonstrated that American citizens were often “luxury targets,” whose capture was likely to generate a big financial payoff or attention for their political agenda.

By the 1970s, a spate of terrorist kidnappings of U.S. diplomats caused the United States to rethink its reaction to these events. The government developed a “no concessions” policy, the premise of which was that if kidnapping did not pay, there would be fewer incentives to abduct Americans.

Yet, the seizure of American missionaries garnered Americans’ attention again in the 1980s when a number of expatriates in Lebanon, including Benjamin Weir, a Presbyterian missionary with a long presence in the country, were taken hostage. In the context of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, anti-Americanism fueled Hezbollah attacks on U.S. diplomatic and military installations, and the group seized Americans as bargaining chips to exchange for prisoners held in Kuwait. The kidnapping of Weir and other U.S. citizens presented national security, domestic political and international credibility challenges for the U.S. government.

Under the circumstances, U.S. officials relaxed official policy in an attempt to free Weir and the other Americans. National Security Council staffer Oliver North and others facilitated Israeli sales of missiles and spare parts to Iran, a country with whom the United States had no diplomatic relations after the embassy seizure in 1979.

On the same day 408 tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided missiles landed in Iran, Weir was released. The freedom of two other Americans held hostage was similarly secured. But when more Americans were kidnapped in subsequent months, the long-standing “no concessions” policy appeared prudent.

As the crisis continued, officials adopted an approach of devaluing the “currency” of American hostages. They sought to minimize attention to communications from the hostages and asserted repeatedly that they would not negotiate for the hostages’ release. Such tactics were intended to diminish the significance of those held captive and therefore limit further kidnapping.

They did not, however, successfully develop a strategy for freeing Americans held by nonstate actors. That problem has lingered to the present.

In 2015, facing its failed efforts to free abducted Americans, the Obama administration shifted U.S. policy to clarify that “no concessions” did not mean “no communication,” reorganized bureaucratically to coordinate hostage recovery more effectively and developed a plan to prevent hostage-taking.

These new policies and the lessons learned in Stone’s and Weir’s kidnappings have probably informed the low-key response by Christian Aid Ministries, which has been soliciting only prayers on the missionaries’ behalf.

Similarly, with the exception of only limited public comments, U.S. government officials have also approached this crisis quietly. It is notable that the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, a position created in the Obama administration in response to the criticism of family members of those held captive overseas, has remained silent on the kidnapping.

American missionaries have long served as formal and informal representatives of the United States in the world. Throughout U.S. history, government officials have discovered that although private Americans and their institutions abroad can bring low-cost benefits, those organizations and the nonofficial Americans who staff them can also be vulnerable to kidnappings. As kidnappers and the U.S. government have both surmised, protecting American citizens abroad continues to pose significant challenges.