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Texas mission team headed home from Niger after military coup

A mission team from Harmony Hill Church in Lufkin, Texas was stranded Niger following a July 26 military coup. The group was able to leave the country via an Italian plane on Aug. 1. (Facebook photo)

LUFKIN, Texas (BP) — A Harmony Hill Baptist Church mission team is headed home from Niger after the July 26 military coup interrupted their outreach to the Fulani, the church announced Aug. 2.

Italy, among several countries evacuating its citizens from Niger, made room on an evacuation flight Aug. 1 for the team of nine students and three adults who had served in Niamey since July 21.

“Last night the Lord answered our prayers to make a way for our team to start their trip home,” the church said in a public statement. “Our church family wants to thank our local Mayor Mark Hicks, Congressman Pete Sessions, and Senator Ted Cruz for making our team a priority and for working hard to get our team out.

“We also want to thank the representatives from Italy who made room on a flight for our team last night. We ask that the community continue to pray for our team, the people of Niger, and the families awaiting the safe arrival of their loved ones.”

The church disclosed no other details of the return trip, and it is not clear whether the mission team was ever directly in harm’s way.

“We are grateful to the community for their interest and prayer support for our team in Niger,” said the church, a member of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

The team enjoyed at least four days of ministry with a partner church in Niamey before the coup, and as recently as July 27 was able to go about its planned activities, the church said on Facebook. The church described Niamey as peaceful a day after a coup toppled the democratic presidency of Mohamed Bazoum.

Coup instigators, calling themselves the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Country, closed Niger’s borders and airspace and enacted a curfew, preventing the team from returning July 30 as originally planned. The team sheltered in place while leaders in the U.S. and abroad worked to get them home.

In a previous statement Aug. 1, the church applauded the team for a “positive attitude and steadfast faith,” and said the team was “currently in a safe place.”

Hicks attends Harmony Hill and had been in touch with his nephew on the missions team, The Daily Sentinel reported July 28, quoting Hicks’ brother David.

“No one is in imminent danger,” David Hicks told the Sentinel. “They are at a home base for a mission group that is a safe place. I talked to my son earlier today and he said, ‘Dad, we’re safe. We’re good.’”

The U.S., the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, the United Nations and the European Union are among those calling for Bazoum to be reinstated. Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea are among the countries supporting the new junta, the Associated Press reported.

Harmony Hill has adopted the Western Fulani, an unreached Muslim people group, as a missions focus, the church said on its website. Of approximately 700,000 Fulani nationals in Niger, the church said less than 50 have accepted Christ.

“Niger is hot and undeveloped, making it difficult on volunteers,” the church said. “Fulani believers are often isolated and suffer discouragement, persecution, and lack of training — making our ongoing relationship with them critical.”

The nomadic Fulani Muslims number 20 million across Western Africa, with other large populations in Nigeria, Mali, Guinea, Cameroon and Senegal.