An American missionary couple kidnapped by Islamic militants in the Philippines nearly seven months ago will be given more attention by U.S. officials, according to the hostages’ agency.
Martin and Gracia Burnham of Florida-based New Tribes Mission, a Protestant organization, were kidnapped May 27 from a hotel in the southeast Asian nation by members of the Abu Sayyaf. The rebel group is on a U.S. list of terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network.
The couple’s family members and agency representatives met Thursday with State Department officials who assured them that Washington would take a more active role in the rescue effort.
On Thursday, the U.S. Army supplied the Philippine military with hundreds of weapons to help them wipe out the Abu Sayyaf, which aims to establish a Muslim state in the southern Philippines. The arms include sniper rifles, mortars and grenade launchers that are part of the military assistance President Bush promised to Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo last month.
New Tribes Mission spokesman Scott Ross told WorldNetDaily, however, that his group hopes to avoid a military rescue attempt and believes that the aid package will not specifically help the Burnhams. The assistance, which includes training special troops, “will have effect months from now, and we need this resolved in days or weeks,” Ross said.
The Arroyo government refuses to offer ransom for the missionaries and has vowed to destroy the Abu Sayyaf. Last year, under the regime of former President Joseph Estrada, the Abu Sayyaf held 21 Western tourists for months before releasing some in exchange for ransoms of up to $1 million per hostage. The Philippine military criticized the government for negotiating with the group, which has used the ransom money to buy new boats and weapons.
This time, army troops are chasing the kidnappers through the mountainous, jungle island of Basilan, hoping to free the captives by force. But past military rescues have been costly. Last April, shortly after the 21 tourists were released, the army attempted to rescue 50 members of a Catholic school kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf. In the onslaught, the militants beheaded two teachers and tortured and killed a Catholic priest.
A third American captured along with the Burnhams, Californian Guillermo Sobero, was beheaded, and 14 other hostages, all Filipinos, have been killed. The Abu Sayyaf claimed that it beheaded Sobero on June 12 as an Independence Day “gift” to Arroyo.
“We would prefer a safe resolution through dialogue rather than some type of military operation,” Ross said.
Ross recognizes that negotiating with terrorists is not an option for the U.S. but insists that a military strategy can be avoided. “Dialogue can take the form of making humanitarian pleas for their release because of who they are and what they’ve done for the Philippines,” he said. “There are different ways to set up dialogues (such as) getting other Muslim groups to convince them to see this resolved.”
The Abu Sayyaf, which means “Bearer of the Sword” in Arabic, have been blamed for kidnappings and bomb attacks on Christian targets since the early 1990s. The decades-long insurgency to establish a Muslim state along with other, mostly larger, rebel groups has taken the lives of some 120,000 people.
Muslims have populated the southern islands of the Philippines since a migration from Malaysia in the 14th century and comprise about 7 percent of the country’s 74 million people. The Philippines is mostly Roman Catholic, with a growing Protestant population.
The Burnhams, both 42, will not live much longer under the current conditions, Ross said. A video taken by a Filipino journalist last month showed them to be thin and frail. Gracia Burnham, who has been forced to wear an Islamic headscarf, told the journalist that she cries all the time because she misses her three children.
“We are very concerned,” Ross said. “It’s obvious they are exposed to the elements, and this is a very physically trying time for them.”