His confrere, Father Armanino told ACN: “If they reach Mali, the fear is that the abduction could be as long as that of Sister Gloria.”
“It was a swift and coordinated attack. The abductors were familiar with the movements of Father Pierluigi and had chosen him as their victim.” This was the account given by Father Mauro Armanino of the Society of the African Missions (SMA) in Niger to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about his confrere, Italian Father Pierluigi Maccalli who was abducted ten days ago, from the mission where he worked, some 125 km from the capital of Niger, Niamey.
It was a well-planned attack that took place in a matter of minutes, according to his Indian confrere, Father John, who lives and works in the same mission together with Father Maccalli. “Monday evening, Father John arrived here at our regional headquarters in Niamey, visibly traumatised”, Father Armanino told ACN. “He himself lives in another small room, just a few metres away from that of Father Pierluigi, and he told us how the abductors had simply knocked on the door, seized the priest and then left again firing shots into the air. From the way they went about it, it was clear that their target was the European priest, since otherwise they would not have left his Indian confrere behind”, he added. As a matter of fact, Father Pierluigi had only just returned from a rest period in Italy. “I myself went to meet him at the airport last Saturday. The kidnappers must have known this, which is why they acted when they did. Certainly it does not help that the government, although well aware of the presence of these armed gangs in the area, has done nothing about it.”
According to Father Armanino, one possible motive for the abduction, apart from the likelihood of a ransom demand – which has not yet become known – and the attempt to gain international media attention, is the desire to frighten the Christian community in one of the very small areas of Niger in which Christianity is the majority faith. “The fact that they have now attacked a Catholic priest for the first time, shows that there are no longer any limits to their violence”, he suggested.
Corroboration of the thesis of an anti-Christian attack has come with the fact that another small group of criminals shortly afterwards attacked the convent of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary. Fortunately, the sisters were able to elude them, some by escaping and others by hiding inside the house. “In fact it was they who were able to provide us with important information about the attackers, who were speaking in the language of the Peul ethnic group while they were ransacking the convent”, Father Armanino explained. Peul is the French name used to describe the Fulani tribesmen in Niger. Consequently, it is likely that Father Pierluigi is in the hands of the same Islamist pastoralists who have murdered thousands of people in nearby Nigeria, where they have launched numerous attacks against Christian villages and even murdered two priests in April this year.
Padre Armanino went on to explain that for the moment it is believed that the kidnappers have not yet succeeded in moving their hostage to Burkina Faso, given that the nearby frontier is very strictly patrolled. Hence it is thought that Father Pierluigi is still in Niger, but the fear is that his abductors may be able to reach Mali, where they have more support. “The group that abducted Pierluigi was a small group. But if they were to succeed in getting to Mali, the situation would be much worse for our confrere”, Father Armanino explained. For there are many other members of the Fulani community there, who would give support to his abductors. “It was in Mali of course that the Colombian religious Sister Gloria Cecilia Narvaez Argoti was abducted in February 2017, and she is still being held prisoner today. And so we are fearful that the abduction of Padre Pierluigi could likewise drag on for a long time.”