Mennonite U.N. worker abducted in Congo
Prayers for Michael J. Sharp, a Mennonite worker with the United Nations kidnapped in the Democratic Republic of Congo, continued into a second week with a March 23 vigil planned in his parents’ community of Hesston, Kan.
Sharp, 34, was one of six people abducted by an unidentified militia group while traveling by motorcycle near the village of Ngombe in Kasai Central province, the Congolese government said March 13.
“We continue to pray and wait, moved and heartened by the words and prayers of thousands around the world,” said John E. Sharp, his father, a history and Bible and ministry faculty member at Hesston College. His mother is Michele Miller Sharp.
“I have said on more than one occasion that we peacemakers should be willing to risk our lives as those who join the military do,” John E. Sharp said. “Now it’s no longer theory.”
Michael J. Sharp is coordinator with the U.N. Group of Experts for the Democratic Republic of Congo, a panel investigating conflicts simmering since civil war in the mid-1990s created dozens of armed groups.
Others abducted included U.N. colleague Zahida Katalan, of Swedish citizenship, and four Congolese people — three drivers and a translator.
A former worker of Mennonite Central Committee in Congo and Mennonite Mission Network in Germany, Sharp is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., and Bethany Christian Schools in Goshen, Ind.
Hesston College and Hesston Mennonite Church are conducting a prayer vigil at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 23, at Hesston Mennonite Church.
Michele Hershberger, a Bible Department colleague of John Sharp’s, said the event was one of the ways the college and church were responding.
“We also have professors stepping up to take John’s classes this week and into the future,” she said March 20, the first day back after the college’s spring break. “I just know that many, many people have come to John’s door today . . . and he came to his classes today just to be with his students. I think he draws much strength from the care his students give him. There have been many casual prayers and tears just today.”
According to U.N.-funded Radio Okapi, Michael Sharp’s group had been instructed by the U.N. Security Council to investigate armed groups, human rights violations and possible violations of an arms embargo.
Kasai Central province is home to multiple militias and rebel groups, including those that use child soldiers. A spokesperson said the government was told at least 100 people were killed in fighting between the army and rebels in the region over four days in February. The U.N. high commissioner for human rights indicated three mass graves had also been discovered in the area.
The Associated Press reported that on March 18, the U.N. mission in Congo reported renewed violence and a “high number of deaths” as government security forces fought Kamwina Nsapu militia members in Kananga, the capital of Central Kasai. The mission is concerned about targeting of civilians, including women and children.
Working for peace
Sharp is no stranger to conflict. He has worked for the U.N. in Congo since 2015. Before that, he spent three years as MCC’s Eastern Congo coordinator, working to facilitate repatriation of Rwandan refugees and negotiating with militia leaders.
As an MMN worker with the German Mennonite Peace Committee, he was director of the Military Counseling Network from 2005 to 2008 in Bammental, Germany. In addition to assisting U.S. service members pursue conscientious objector status during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he took part in a delegation to Iraqi Kurdistan.
When not working overseas, Sharp has been making his home in Albuquerque, N.M. Mountain States Mennonite Conference coordinated a candlelight vigil March 15 at various locations across North America.
“Prayer, I think, has more power than a nuclear bomb if we really believe,” Hershberger said. “I think these prayer vigils are the best thing we can do right now.”
MCC and its partner organizations are mobilizing their resources in efforts separate from those of the U.N.
Alumni of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding with connections to Congo have also been notified.
“I have mobilized all of our Mennonite members in Congo for prayers but also for advocacy,” replied one alumnus in an email March 15 to CJP executive director Daryl Byler.
The Associated Press reported the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa was aware of reports about Sharp, and the State Department was monitoring the situation.
“The U.S. Department of State has no higher priority than the protection of U.S. citizens overseas,” said a statement from the embassy. “When a U.S. citizen is missing, we work closely with local authorities and cooperate fully in their search efforts,” the statement said.
This story was updated March 21, 2017.
Mennonite World Review invites readers’ comments on articles. To promote constructive dialogue, editors select the comments that appear, just as we do with letters to the editor in print. These decisions are final. Writers must sign their first and last names; anonymous comments are not accepted. Comments do not appear until approved and are posted during business hours. Comments may be reproduced in print, and may be edited if selected for print.