Dozens of priests arrested in 2023 as authoritarian regimes crack down on Church

Thirteen priests and one religious brother were murdered during 2023, though half were killed for reasons apparently unrelated to persecution. Arrests increased, while kidnappings of clergy and religious dropped compared to 2022, but remains a serious concern, especially in Africa.

Sanctuary of the martyrs of brotherhood in Buta
Sanctuary of the martyrs of brotherhood in Buta

According to the numbers collected by the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a total of 132 Catholic priests and religious were either arrested, kidnapped or murdered during 2023.

This represents an increase from 124 in 2022. These are, however, the confirmed cases, the number could be higher since in some countries reliable information is difficult to obtain.

Of these, 86 were clergy arrested or detained at some point during 2023. Some of the priests and religious 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 in order to punish the Church for speaking out against injustices and human rights violations, or merely for trying to operate freely.

A total of 46 clergy 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 reentry after being abroad. Many of the priests who had been arrested were eventually released or sent into exile, but a major 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, plus Bishop Rolando Alvarez, who was arrested in August 2022 and later sentenced to 26 years in prison, remain in custody.

Even if proving the information is almost impossible, ACN numbers point to 20 cases of clergy under arrest at some point in 2023 in China, some of whom remain unaccounted for after many years. But the true number could be higher, or even slightly lower, as some priests or bishops may have been released without details being made public.

Another country which has resorted to arrests in order to silence priests is Belarus, where at least 10 were detained by the authorities at some point, with three still behind bars as the year drew to a close.

Fathers Ivan Levitskyi and Bohdan Heleta, the two Greek Catholic priests who were arrested in Ukraine in 2022 by occupying Russian forces, have also not yet been released.

And in India, where anti-conversion laws continue to be used to try and impede the work of Catholic organisations, at least six were arrested over the year, including one religious sister. All have since been released, though some still face charges that could lead to prison sentences.

Kidnappings down, but still worrying

The number of priests or religious sisters kidnapped in 2023 dropped to 33 from 54 in 2022 but remains significant. This number includes five priests who were abducted in previous years, but remained in the hands of their kidnappers or were unaccounted for in 2023, such as Fr Hans-Joachim Lohre, who was kidnapped in Mali in 2022, and released in November 2023.

 

Infographics of priests and religious who were arrested, murdered or kidnapped in 2023.
Infographics of priests and religious who were arrested, murdered or kidnapped in 2023.

Nigeria leads the list by far, with 28 cases, including three religious sisters, whereas the only other country with multiple cases was Haiti, with two. Other countries where priests were kidnapped include Mali and Burkina Faso, while in Ethiopia one religious sister was abducted.

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, the international charity tracks only those that are related to persecution, and not to proven cases of common criminality. Cases related to members of other confessions are also not considered in the list.

Nigeria highest number of murders

Tragically, in 2023, many Christians, and especially clergy and religious, paid a heavy price for their commitment to common good, human rights, religious freedom and the freedom of the communities and nations they serve. 2023 saw 14 murders, including 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 female religious were murdered this year.

Attack in Kamantan, St. Raphael parish Fadan, Kafanchan diocese, Nigeria. Seminarian Na'aman Danlami died.
Attack in Kamantan, St. Raphael parish Fadan, Kafanchan diocese, Nigeria. Seminarian Na’aman Danlami died.

Seven of the killings took place in circumstances that were either unclear or not directly related to any confirmed incident of persecution. These included a bishop and a priest in the USA, a priest in Colombia, a priest in Mexico, a religious brother in Cameroon, a priest in Burkina Faso and a priest in Nigeria.

Of the other seven deaths directly related to persecution, Nigeria again has the highest number on the list with three. Fr Isaac Achi was brutally murdered in January, when he was unable to escape his residence as it burned to the ground following an attack, and seminarian Na’aman Danlami suffered the exact same fate, but in September. Soon afterwards, in October, Godwin Eze, a Benedictine who had been abducted along with two fellow novices, was murdered by his kidnappers.

Some of the murders have been classified as being for reasons of persecution, despite the unclear motives of the murderers. Fr Pamphili Nada was killed in Tanzania by a man with mental issues. In Mexico, Fr Javier García Villafaña was found shot dead in his car by unknown assailants, in a region where organised crime is common and those who speak out against it are often targeted by drug cartels. And, in December, an elderly Belgian priest called Leopold Feyen, and 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.

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