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The number of priests, religious, and seminarians who were killed, kidnapped, or arrested is troublingly high, according to a Catholic agency supporting the Church under oppression.
Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) found that 132 Catholic priests and religious were either arrested, kidnapped, or murdered during 2023, up from 124 cases the previous year.
Seventeen priests, two bishops, and one religious brother were murdered in 2023, although half were killed for reasons seemingly unrelated to persecution.
In Nigeria, a total of 14 murders included 11 priests, one bishop, one religious brother and one seminarian. This represents a drop from the 18 registered in 2022. As far as ACN was able to ascertain, no women religious were murdered last year.
Worldwide, ACN identified seven deaths directly related to persecution, with three of them being in Nigeria. Fr. Isaac Achi was murdered in January when he was unable to escape his burning residence. A seminarian, Na’aman Danlami, suffered the same fate in September. Soon afterwards, in October, Godwin Eze, a Benedictine brother who had been abducted along with two fellow novices, was murdered by his kidnappers.
Some of the murders have been classified as being linked to persecution, despite the unclear motives of the murderers. Fr. Pamphili Nada was killed in Tanzania by a mentally unstable man. In Mexico, Fr. Javier García Villafaña was found shot dead by unknown assailants, in a region where organized crime is common and those who speak out against it are often targeted by drug cartels. And, in December, an elderly Belgian, Fr. Leopold Feyen, known locally as Pol, was stabbed to death by armed men who broke into his house in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he had served for decades.
[Photo above shows Fr. Olivier Ntsa Ebode, who was murdered in Cameroon.]
Detained by regimes
Eighty-six priests and religious were under arrest or in detention at some point during the year. Some of them had already been arrested or abducted before the year began but remained in custody or were missing for some or all of 2023. This compares to 55 who were under arrest at some point during 2022.
Nicaragua and Belarus lead the list of authoritarian regimes that have resorted to detaining priests and religious to punish the Church for speaking out against injustices and human rights violations, or merely for trying to operate freely, ACN said.
A total of 46 clergy or seminarians were under arrest at some point during 2023 in Nicaragua, including two bishops and four seminarians, while others, including religious sisters such as the Missionaries of Charity, were expelled from the country or refused re-entry. Some of the priests who had been arrested were eventually released or sent into exile.
A crackdown over the last two weeks of December led to the arrest of at least 19 clerics, including Bishop Isidoro de Carmen Mora Ortega of Siuna. Two of the priests were later released, but the remaining 17 — as well as Bishop Rolando Alvarez, who was arrested in August 2022 and later sentenced to 26 years in prison — remain in custody.
In China, ACN identified 20 cases of clergy under arrest at some point in 2023. Some of them remain unaccounted for after many years. But the actual number could be higher or even slightly lower, as some priests or bishops may have been released without details being made public.
Another country that has resorted to arrests to silence priests is Belarus, where at least 10 were detained by the authorities at some point, with three still behind bars as 2023 ended.
In neighboring Ukraine, Redemptorist Fathers Ivan Levitskyi and Bohdan Heleta, who were arrested in November 2022 by occupying Russian military forces, have also not yet been released. Nor has there been any information on their whereabouts or condition.
And in India, where anti-conversion laws continue to impede the work of the Church, at least five clergy and one woman religious were arrested in 2023. All have since been released, though some still face charges that could lead to prison sentences.
The number of priests and religious sisters being held by kidnappers in 2023 dropped to 33 from 54 in 2022. This total includes five priests who were abducted in previous years, but remained in the hands of their abductors or were unaccounted for in 2023, such as Fr. Hans-Joachim Lohre, who was kidnapped in Mali in 2022, and released in November 2023.
Countries where priests and religious were kidnapped include Haiti, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ethiopia. But Nigeria leads the list by far, with 28 cases, including three women religious.
There was one case in Nigeria of a monk who was murdered by his kidnappers; otherwise the vast majority of those kidnapped ended up being released, with the exception of four priests: John Bako Shekwolo from Nigeria and Joël Yougbaré from Burkina Faso, who have been missing since 2019, and Joseph Igweagu and Christopher Ogide, both from Nigeria, missing since 2022.
This is the second year that ACN has tracked all cases of kidnappings, murders and arrests of Catholic clergy and religious around the world. Regarding arrests, ACN tracks only those that are related to persecution and excludes cases of criminality.