AFRICA/MALI - The “sabbatical year” of Father Ha-Jo in the hands of the kidnappers: “They asked me for forgiveness, and I had already forgiven them"

Thursday, 8 February 2024


by Antonella Prenna
Bamako (Agenzia Fides) - "Germany is waging war against us, has soldiers in Gao (Mali) and, together with the European Union, is training the Malian army in Kulikoro, on the banks of the Niger river. Taking hostages is our revenge against your country".
This was the response that Father Hans Joachim Lohre, of the Missionaries of Africa (known as the "White Fathers") received from the leader of the JNIM group, linked to al-Qaeda, who kidnapped him in Mali on Sunday, November 20, 2022.
Father Joachim, who everyone calls “Father Ha-Jo,” was released a little more than a year later, on November 26, 2023. The German missionary, who first came to Mali in 1981, tells Fides in an interview about the highlights of his "sabbatical year", as he calls the twelve months that he spent in the hands of his captors.
"When I was taken hostage", reports Father Hans-Joachim, "I had the grace to remain completely calm and I was not afraid. I knew that JNIM hostages are generally treated well, and I lived that period with faith and in prayer. The first move lasted four days, then another five weeks in the 'bush' of the Sahel, until after two weeks a new group of guards arrived. I stayed in the sandy desert for four months, with a monthly rotation of the guards who kept us in custody. Six months followed in a desert area between rocks and hills. In the last months before my release I was with other hostages. We always met for an hour during meals cooked by one of the hostages who was with us, and we could talk about anything." "They were intense months", says the missionary. "In the beginning I spent a lot of time with the young guards and talked to them about the Muslim and Christian faith. Over the next four months I was able to pray. I got up in the morning and went
to sleep at sunset. I walked for 30 minutes every day and I had two hours available for the Eucharistic celebration, which I celebrated according to the intentions of the world, of the Church, of my family and my friends, of my confreres, of the people of Mali, of interreligious dialogue. I celebrated Mass every day, breaking bread and imagining that I also had wine. After lunch I prayed the rosary for an hour and in the afternoon I meditated on a passage from the Gospel. During Ramadan, the month of fasting for Muslims, I 'preached to myself' the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises for 30 days. In the last few months I had a radio and could listen to the news in the morning and at noon and Vatican Radio in the evening, the news of the universal Church. At weekends I was also able to follow the football events in Germany, England, Italy, Spain and France." The conversation with Father Ha-Jo reveals a good relationship with those who held him hostage. The missionary emphasizes that he was never mistreated: "We always had civil, polite, respectful and sometimes even friendly relations. They were simply doing their 'job': to guard me. The leader of the kidnappers asked me to forgive them 'one day', which I had already done, as well as the young men who held me in the bush because they were worried about whether they would harm me. Even the driver of the car that took me to freedom asked for my forgiveness for any problems I may have had." When they were released, one of the leaders wanted to explain to the priest why they were taking people hostage. "There are three reasons," he said, "why we take people hostage: first, because the West, Europe and America are at war with the Muslims; second, to extort money or ransom for prisoners; and third, so that no more Europeans arrive in Mali to subjugate the Muslims with some of their behavior that does not correspond to our culture".
"In Mali" concludes Father Joachim "everyone is waiting for me: Muslims and Christians, the Institute for Christian-Islamic Education (IFIC) and the Center for Faith and Encounter (CFR), the parish of St. Monika. I pray for them every day." Mali was involved in two coups d'état in August 2020 and May 2021 (see Fides, 26/5/2021), which contributed to a worsening of the security crisis caused by jihadist insurgencies in the north of the country. (Agenzia Fides, 8/2/2024)