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Burnham executed, wife injured in Philippine rescue attempt

MANILA, Philippines (BP)–A U.S. missionary held hostage for more than a year by Muslim terrorists was executed by his captors and his wife was seriously wounded during a June 7 rescue attempt by the Philippine military.

Martin Burnham, 42, was “executed by the Abu Sayyaf rebels” when they realized that a rescue attempt was underway, military officials told The Philippine Star.

Burnham’s wife, Gracia, was wounded by gunfire. The 43-year-old missionary was taken to a military hospital in the southern city of Zamboanga where she underwent surgery on her right leg.

A third hostage, Filipino nurse Deborah Yap, also was killed in the intense firefight between the rebels and Filipino forces.

The Burnhams were career missionaries with New Tribes Mission, an interdenominational agency based in Sanford, Fla. The Burnhams joined the mission agency in 1986 — Martin as a pilot and Gracia in a variety of roles assisting the aviation program.

They have three children, Jeffrey, 15, Mindy, 12, and Zach, 11. The children are living in Kansas with Burnham’s parents.

Doug Burnham, Martin’s brother, told CNN he is thankful Gracia is alive.

“Obviously, it hasn’t turned out the way we hoped. But we are grateful Gracia is alive. Our faith in the Lord is still the same. That hasn’t changed.”

Details of the rescue attempt were sketchy, however Doug Burnham said their family was appreciative of the rescue efforts.

“We are grateful for everyone who tried to rescue them,” he told CNN. “I’m sure in the future we’ll get more details.”

U.S. officials said no American troops were involved in the raid. CNN reported that a U.S. helicopter was deployed for medical assistance.

Four Abu Sayyaf gunmen were killed and seven Filipino soldiers were wounded in the battle.

The Burnhams were among 20 people kidnapped from a resort on May 27, 2001, by the Muslim terrorist group. They were celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary at the time of their capture.

Officials at New Tribes Mission in Sanford, Fla., released a statement on their website, noting Burnham’s death.

“Our hearts are heavy over the loss of Martin and Deborah,” the statement read. “We are grateful for Gracia’s survival and we ache for her, their children and the families.

“We know your hearts are also saddened by this report and we ask that you be in prayer for Gracia, the children, the rest of the families and for the family of Deborah Yap.”

Philippines President Gloria Arroyo expressed sympathy for the families in a statement released to CNN.

“This has been a long and painful trial for [the families of the hostages],” the statement read. “Our soldiers had tried to hold fire for their safety. We had hoped and prayed for their safe return. Gracia is safe; this is our blessing. The terrorist shall not be allowed to get away with this. We shall not stop until the Abu Sayyaf is finished.”

A spokesman for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, Mark Kelly, stated, “We are sobered and deeply grieved by the deaths of Martin Burnham and Ediborah Yap and the wounding of Gracia Burnham after more than a year in captivity. We share the grief being experienced by the families of the victims and their colleagues at New Tribes Mission. We ask God to pour out his comforting grace and love on them, especially on Gracia as she recovers from her wounds and on their children as they suffer the loss of their father.

“This tragedy reminds us how vulnerable missionaries are and how deeply committed they are to our Lord when they serve in dangerous places,” Kelly said. “Their willingness to take risks in order to share the good news of God’s love in remote areas of the world reflects God’s own passion for bringing a lost world back to himself. We need to always pray for God to protect Christian missionaries, to strengthen and give them his peace and to powerfully bless their witness and ministry.

“We know God can bring good out of this tragedy and we pray that he will use it to help many people understand their need for a relationship with him. We especially want to encourage Christians to pray that the rebels who held these three hostage for so long will embrace the Burnham’s faith in Christ,” Kelly said.

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  • Todd Starnes