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Vatican Radio made me feel part of the Church during captivity

 Vatican Radio made me feel part of the Church during captivity  ING-004
26 January 2024

After his year-long ordeal as a hostage of Islamist militants in Mali, Fr Hans-Joachim Lohre shares details of his captivity and recounts how he listened to Pope Francis’ 2022 Christmas Mass on Vatican Radio, allowing him to feel part of the universal Church.

“My captivity was a time which God gave to me to renew my strength, to renew my faith in order to be of any use to people afterwards.”

Fr Hans-Joachim Lohre, MAfr, was on his way to celebrate Mass on the feast of Christ the King in 2022, in Bamako, when armed men pulled up behind his car, told him he was under arrest, and dragged him into their vehicle.

“This was a question of some seconds only,” he recounted. The men then drove him for a few hours into the bush, where he was handed to jihadists.

“When I was handed over to the jihadists,” he said, “the man on my right said, ‘Do not be afraid; we are the good ones. We are from Al-Qaeda. We are not like the Islamic State who killed people like this. You have nothing to fear from us.’”

Thus began the German-born missionary’s year-long ordeal at the hands of Islamic militants in the deserts of Mali.

Imprisoned but respected

The 66-year-old Fr Lohre has served in Mali as a Missionary of Africa, commonly known as the White Fathers for the colour of their habit, for over 30 years.

After his release from captivity in late November 2023, Fr Lohre visited the studios of Vatican Radio — Vatican News. He shared his story in an interview with John Baptist Tumusiime.

Asked whether he had been kidnapped out of hatred for the Christian faith, the Catholic priest said he posed that same question to his captors.

He received this response: “We did not take you because you are a priest or because you are involved in interreligious dialogue. But we took you because you are German, and we are at war with Germany, because Germany sends its soldiers to Mali in order to fight us. And Germany with the other European countries is also training the Malian army in Koulikoro against us. So, you are a prisoner of war. A prisoner of war.”

However, Fr Lohre said he was treated with great respect by his captors, who were nonetheless always armed and never left him alone.

“If you have ever been to Mali, or if you have ever been to Africa, you will see that people are most welcoming,” he said. “Hospitality is a very great point and especially also the respect of elders.”

Once, he took off his shirt to wash it. But one of the men immediately came and offered to wash it for him. After that, they would ask him weekly if he wanted his clothes washed along with those of the jihadists.

Listening to Pope’s Mass, feeling with the Church

Then, on the night of 24 December 2022, after over a month as a hostage, Fr. Lohre saw one of the men listening to a shortwave radio. When he had finished, Fr Lohre asked if he could borrow the radio.

After some searching, he happened across a shortwave frequency of Vatican Radio, which at that moment was broadcasting Pope Francis’ Christmas Mass during the Night from St Peter’s Basilica.

A few months later, Fr Lohre was allowed the use of a radio more frequently. Every afternoon, he would scan the dial and listen to the English-language and French-language daily news broadcasts.

“This helped me greatly to ‘sentire cum Ecclesia’ — to feel part of the universal Church,” he said

Lights in the desert

Despite his ordeal, Fr Lohre never doubted that God would bring him back alive.

One night, in November 2023, he stepped outside, looked up at the stars, and told God: “Well, Lord, it’s not too late for your miracle.”

At that moment, he saw a shooting star, and felt confirmed in his belief that he would survive.

Then, a while later, he saw another shooting star. Five or six days later, his captors came to Fr Lohre and told him he was leaving the next day. Early the next morning, he was released and left for Germany.

Physically-bound, spiritually-free

As a priest, Fr Lohre was unable to celebrate Mass or receive the Sacraments, but he took his hardship as if it were a sabbatical or retreat and a chance to recharge.

“I was exhausted and I needed a break,” he said. “And we see Jesus did the same. He was preaching three days with the crowds and feeding them and teaching. But then we read in the Gospel that during the night he went to the mountain to be alone with His Father in prayer.”

During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Fr Lohre sought to turn his imposed daytime fasting into an informal Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.

“I was living this time really as a time of prayer,” he said. “And I must say, I’ve never had an experience like this — and most probably very few have — that in one year, from the 371 days of my captivity, I spent 368 deep in peace and consolation. Who can say this of himself?”

By Devin Watkins &
John Baptist Tumusiime