Masked gunmen abducted an American missionary in southern Nigeria, her church's website and Nigerian authorities said Tuesday.
"Early this morning we received a report that Rev. Phyllis Sortor, our missionary in Nigeria, was abducted from the Hope Academy compound in Emiworo, Kogi state, Nigeria by several persons," the Free Methodist Church website said, calling for prayers for her safe return.
The abduction late Monday was confirmed by Kogi state police spokesman Sola Collins Adebayo, the Agence France-Presse news service reported.
The motive of the kidnapping wasn’t known, but Nigeria has seen dozens of kidnappings of expatriates by criminal groups for ransom, as well as abductions of Westerners by Islamist militant groups, including Boko Haram.
Boko Haram is normally active mainly in northern Nigeria, although it has carried out attacks in Abuja and central Nigeria.
“We are calling on the U.S. church to join together in prayer for Phyllis’ safety and speedy release,” Bishop David Kendall said in a church statement. He said the State Department and FBI were working with local authorities to trace Sortor and free her.
Few personal details about Sortor were provided, though the website of the Seattle Pacific University in Seattle identified her as an alumna.
According to the church website, Sortor developed a close affinity with the Fulani people -- semi-nomadic herdsmen -- and had helped open schools for their children. In a recent newsletter, she reported her joy at the opening of a new school in Enugu in southeastern Nigeria.
“We have worked long and hard on this school, and are so thrilled that yesterday, January 19th, 2015, we were able to open our doors for the first time! We began with 82 children, 58 of whom are Muslim, Fulani kids from one nearby camp!” Sortor wrote in a January newsletter.
“The Fulani parents are wonderfully cooperative -- sending food and water with their kids, organizing a Parent-Teacher Association -- giving us Fulani security guards for the school! We have six teachers altogether; a tutor-chaplain, bursar, driver and 'mother's helper.' All are wonderful Christian people who I know, with God's help, will make this school great!” she wrote.
When reached by phone Tuesday, a representative for the Free Methodist Church in Seattle declined to comment, saying church officials were conferring with Sortor’s family. The family could not be immediately reached for comment.
At a prayer service at Seattle Pacific University on Monday night, stepson Richard Sortor told KING5-TV that the news was “surreal, just surreal, I can’t believe this.” He said, “She believes in God, she’s doing God’s work.”
In a testimonial video uploaded to the Internet about five years ago, Phyllis Sortor said she had been a missionary for the Free Methodist Church for – at that time – about 10 years. Sortor spoke of the aid she received from Christian and Muslim friends in Nigeria after the recent death of her husband, Jim, of heart failure after suffering some kind of viral infection.
From her ordeal, Sortor said she learned that 2 Corinthians 9:8 was her “life verse”: “God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.”
“When we’re going through something tough, God is there, supplying all that we need,” Sortor said, adding, “I just pray that God will use this terrible thing that happened with Jim to somehow make a further connection with our Muslim friends so that they can really see the love of God and come to accept him as their savior. I miss Jim terribly, but I trust God and I thank God because God has once again proven himself to me and I know that nothing that can happen to me in my future will ever defeat me with God by my side.”
Brenda Young, lead pastor at Cornerstone Free Methodist Church in Akron, Ohio, and director of the Clear Blue Global Water Project, who has helped Sortor with clean-water projects, said Sortor would frequently solicit help through emails with titles like “it’s me again,” “it’s the pest again,” “did you cringe when you saw my name?”
“She’s fearless in asking for what she needs to help people,” Young said. “We tried to move heaven and earth to get her money for whatever project she needed.”
Young called Sortor “one of the most compassionate, hard-driving, let’s-get-it-done women I know.... Nothing is about her. She’s really a giving person.”
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Dixon reported from Johannesburg and Pearce from Los Angeles.