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Missionaries’ year of captivity ‘has taken a toll,’ agency states

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A year of captivity “has taken a toll” on the health of kidnapped missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham, New Tribes Mission acknowledged in a May 14 statement issued in light of various news reports about the Burnhams’ well-being.

The New Tribes missionaries were kidnapped in the Philippines by an Osama bin Laden-related terrorist group on May 27, 2001.

The Burnhams “have suffered from malnutrition sores on their feet and mouths, malaria and wounds,” New Tribes Mission stated. “This ordeal has also taken an emotional toll on them and their families.”

The NTM statement also recounted, “Recent unconfirmed reports indicate that, after nearly a year in captivity, kidnapped NTM missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham are not well. It is being reported that Martin is suffering from, or has recently suffered from, malaria. Gracia is said to be seriously ill from an infection. It is even being reported that the kidnappers are considering releasing Gracia, lest she die. However, like many reports over the last year, none of this can be confirmed.”

NTM said its crisis teams in Manila and the United States “are continuing to work around the clock to track down reliable information about Martin and Gracia.”

“While we would welcome Gracia’s release, we call on their captors to free the couple and their fellow hostage, Filipina nurse Deborah Yap,” the missions agency said. “Please join us in asking God that Martin and Gracia, and Deborah, will soon be released. Pray also for his will to be done and his name to be glorified.”

The interdenominational missions agency, based in Sanford, Fla., specializes in planting indigenous churches among unevangelized people groups in remote areas around the world.

In a May 1 statement, New Tribes Mission acknowledged that a failed ransom deal — in which it had no involvement — had heightened the danger facing the Burnhams. A $300,000 ransom payment raised by the Burnhams’ families failed to free the missionaries around Easter, when their captors, the terror-linked Abu Sayyaf Group, subsequently demanded an additional $200,000, according to an April 26 report in The New York Times. A CNSNews.com report May 2 stated that the demand had risen to $2 million.

On May 2, a spokesman for the Abu Sayyaf Group said in a taped radio interview that “holding the hostages is more advantageous to the group compared to the $2 million [in ransom demanded for their freedom].” But, he stated, “If we see that we are being outfought [by government forces], it’s goodbye to these two.”

On May 14, the Reuters news service quoted a Philippine military official as saying Abu Sayyaf guerillas may release Gracia Burnham. “Perhaps, the Abu Sayyaf is considering this for humanitarian reasons,” the official told reporters. Reuters noted that Manila newspapers had reported on an unidentified emissary to the rebel group who had delivered medicine to the couple where they have been held on Basilan Island. The emissary cited a urinary tract infection as causing Gracia Burnham’s deteriorating health. Martin Burnham, meanwhile, apparently was suffering from malaria, the Manila media reported.

On May 5, in an extensive Dallas Morning News story titled, “Fear torments captive U.S. couple … Missionaries struggling in pain, misery, Filipino witnesses say,” reporter Gregg Jones noted that Martin Burnham “passes his days in a hammock hung between two trees in a jungle camp. His wrists are handcuffed. His movement is limited by a short chain looped around his shackles and tethered to a tree.”

Gracia Burnham, meanwhile, can move about freely, but she must cover her head with a Muslim veil, Jones reported.

The missionaries “are free to practice their Christian faith by praying and reading the Bible,” the Dallas Morning News reported noted.

Jones also recounted that the Burnhams “live in jungle camps where they sleep in hammocks and bathe in rivers. They endure long marches over rugged terrain, frantic escapes from gunbattles between their captors and government soldiers, and the never-ending struggle to survive in a debilitating tropical climate on a poor diet, according to former hostages and Abu Sayyaf rebels who have spent time with the American couple in captivity.”

The Burnhams have been NTM workers since 1985; he is a pilot and she also works in conjunction with NTM aviation needs. Martin Burnham grew up in the Philippines, where his parents have been missionaries for more than 32 years.

The New Tribes Mission’s website is www.ntm.org; e-mail updates about the Burnhams can be received by sending an e-mail to [email protected].