A missionary priest, who returns every year to work in a Dungannon parish, has recounted his terrifying ordeal at the hands of a gang of ruthless kidnappers in Nigeria.
Father Leo Okoli, who says Mass in Killeeshil parish for four weeks every year, said it was a miracle that he escaped after being held captive in the jungle for three days in December.
The priest, who suffers from diabetes, had been in his parish of Mbiama in the delta region of Southern Nigeria, when a gang with axes broke into his compound on December 20.
After stealing the chuch collection money, the kidnappers took Father Leo on their motorbikes and kept him bound and blindfolded at a camp deep in the jungle.
Younger looking than his forty-one years, Father Leo has been recounting his story to Killeeshil parishioners at Mass for the past week.
During his interview with the Tyrone Times, he showed the scars that still mark his legs and spoke of the trauma he endured.
“They burnt my mouth and beat me.
took my phone and rang my bishop, demanding a ransom of £80,000 before they would free me”, he said.
However, a recent church conference in Nigeria had decreed that no ransom would be paid to gangs who kidnapped priests or nuns on the grounds that it would only encourage further kidnaps.
“When the bishop said he couldn’t pay them, they rang my parishioners and demanded money from them and my family.
“However, my parish is poor, and I survive on an allowance of £40 a month. I had nothing to give them but my car.”
Convinced he was going to die, afflicted by mosquitos and ants and deprived of food, Father Leo was moved deeper into the jungle and kept at gunpoint.
One of his kidnappers asked him, “Man of God, is what we are doing a sin?”
When the priest did not reply. they told him, “God loves sinners more than the righteous.”
When no money was forthcoming, the gang decided to return to his village and kidnap the nums who lived there on the grounds that the bishop would pay a ransom for the women.
Before leaving they said prayers, asking for God’s blessing, and when Father Leo refused to pray with them, they beat and slapped him.
“They left me tied and blindfolded in their camp and said they had a guard positioned to watch over me until they returned. However. when I began shouting, and no one responded I knew I was completely alone. I crawled to the nearest tree and began rubbing my head against the trunk and eventually worked off the blindfold.
“I then began rubbing the rope around my hands against the tree and after a lot of effort I managed to undo the ropes. But when I stood up, I immediately collapsed. I hadn’t eaten in three days and was exhausted.
“Somehow, I managed to find the strength and made my way back to the village.”
Fearing that their priest was going to be killed, the parishioners in Mbiama were holding a constant prayer vigil in the church, hoping for a miracle to save him.
“After three days in the bush I staggered into the church and saw the crowd praying there for me. When they turned and saw me, they were absolutely ecstatic and praised God.
“It was the day before Christmas Eve and there were great celebrations. It was as if I had been resurrected from the dead.
“My bishop told the parish, Father Leo has had an Easter experience at Christmas.”
He said that he has fully recovered and the experience has strengthened his faith and vocation. Father Leo returns to Nigeria to a new parish at the end of June.