(Source: CD/Vatican News)

The Malian presidency on Thursday confirmed the release alongside three other hostages of Italian priest Fr. Pierluigi Maccalli, who was kidnapped two years ago by jihadist insurgents.

Media reports say the release was part of a hundred-prisoner swap mediated by the recently-constituted government in Mali.

The other three people released alongside priest Maccalli, 59, are Italian Nicola Chiacchio, Frenchwoman Sophie Petronin, 75, and Malian politician Soumaïla Cissé, 70.

Reacting to the news, the Conference of Italian Bishops (CEI) said in a Twitter post that it welcomes with joy the release of Fr. Pierluigi and Nicola Chiacchio.

The Bishops also expressed their gratitude to God and to all those who worked for their liberation, while they said they continue to pray for others who are still missing.

Fr. Maccalli and Nicola Chiacchio

Fr. Pierluigi Maccalli, a missionary of the Society of African Missions (SMA), was kidnapped by jihadist militants in Niger at the border with Burkina Faso on the night of the September 17-18 2018. He was working in the parish of Bomoanga in the diocese of Niamey.

Maccalli’s kidnap took place a week after his return from a period of vacation in Italy.

Before his release, he was last seen in a video earlier this year in which he appeared with Chiacchio, an engineer who was captured while visiting Mali as a tourist in 2019.

They were both seated next to each other in the video, beards unkempt and visibly emaciated.

Other hostages freed

Soumaïla Cissé, one of the other three hostages freed, is a former opposition leader, finance minister and three-time presidential candidate in Mali. He was seized on March 25 2020 in his home region of Niafounké.

Sophie Petronin was kidnapped on December 24 2014 in Gao, northern Mali, where she ran a children’s aid organisation.

A “promising sign of hope” ahead of World Mission Sunday October 18

Also reacting to the news of the liberations, Tanzanian Archbishop Protase Rugambwa, Secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, told the Fides news agency that Maccalli’s release “is a special sign of hope for all of us, for Africa and for the universal Church, in the month traditionally dedicated to missions and in view of the forthcoming celebration of World Mission Sunday” on October 18.

“This event, by the will of God, has had a happy ending, [and] reminds us that missionaries are always close to the people; they do not flee even during difficult situations and give their lives for the Gospel”, Rugambwa highlighted.

Also welcoming the priest’s release, Superior General Fr. Antonio Porcellato said that “the joy of our great family of the Society of African Missions is immense”.

The SMA head invited Catholics to pray “”for other people who are still in the hands of their kidnappers”, and to pray “for the numerous victims of this blind and senseless violence that affects the Sahel”.

Bishop Daniele Gianotti of Maccalli’s home diocese of Crema, in Italy, also pointed out the coincidence that the priest should have been released in time for Mission Sunday.

“I want to read his liberation as a sign of trust and encouragement for all those men and women who witness to the Gospel of Jesus in the most exposed and difficult situations”, Gianotti said in a press release.

“I hope the liberation of Father Gigi will be a promising sign of hope for all those others who are prisoners because of their faith and their struggle for truth, justice and reconciliation and that it will be a seed of peace and trust for Niger, which he loves so much, for the Sahel and for all of Africa”, the bishop said.

From the Novena archives:

December 2019: Italian Church holds candle for priest missionary kidnapped in Niger… fifteen months on

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. Lecturer in ethics at Loyola University Maryland, Alcalá de Henares (Spain) campus. Religion journalist with 4 years experience.