On Sunday morning, May 27, 2001, Abu Sayyaf rebels descended on a beach resort in the Philippines and abducted 20 hostages, including American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham, who were celebrating their wedding anniversary. In the United States, it was Memorial Day weekend, and CT editors were enjoying a holiday break. But by 10 a.m. on the first post-holiday workday, online managing editor Ted Olsen had compiled a compact news report studded with hyperlinks to Internet information sources ranging from the BBC and The Washington Post to a U.S. Navy information page about the Al Qaeda-connected rebel group.
In the months that followed, Ted dogged the story for our online readers, regularly updating them with reports from the Philippine press and other sources that would not have appeared in American newspapers.
One year after the Abu Sayyaf raid, The Wichita Eagle published a story about the difficulty that Martin and Gracia's family faced in keeping their plight before the public. Matt Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs told the Eagle, "The scale of the story isn't that great. It's two people in the Philippines."
The newspaper added, "Nothing much has changed for the Burnhams in the past year, and news, by definition, prizes what is new."
What Ted Olsen knew, however, was that Christian media can play a special role, because, as Martin Burnham's mother, Oreta, told the Eagle, "Christian audiences are more likely to write congressmen, write letters to the editor and pray. And that's the best way to keep pressure on politicians to do something."
The elder Burnhams gave Christianity Today's online efforts a great deal of credit for keeping the story alive.
I asked Ted what kept him coming back to the story. "I was amazed at how quickly they were forgotten," he said. "For a while there was an effort to keep the story quiet. The government didn't want to raise the Burnhams' profile so that they would become politically important to the Abu Sayyaf."
"The prayer aspect is also important," Ted said. Christians want to pray about their missionaries, and the kind of information Ted's Weblog is able to provide from the foreign press can really contribute to serious, informed prayer.
Unfortunately, the Burnhams' story ended in tragedy. And on the occasion of the publication of Gracia Burnham's memoir, In the Presence of My Enemies (Tyndale), Ted Olsen flew to Kansas for an exclusive, in-depth interview with Gracia and a chance to discuss what went wrong. Beginning on page 32, you can read what she has to say about the ineffective policies and bungled ransom efforts that contributed to her husband's death.
Ted focused this issue's cover story on the ransom question, but government policy angers him as well. "Right now our policies are for relating to terrorists, not for what to do about hostages," he says. "Is there a hostage-based approach? Could the first question be How do we free the hostages? rather than What games do we play with the terrorists? If there were a hostage-based approach, the church could really get involved with that!"
In our next issue: The challenge of suburban spirituality, the theological novels of John Updike, and the legacy of the Cornerstone music festival.
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Also appearing on our site today:
Did Martin Die Needlessly? | Gracia Burnham believes her husband would be alive today if someone had paid the proper ransom—but mission agencies wonder how many other missionaries would have been kidnapped as a result.
Gracia Burnham: 'I Speak My Mind' | The former hostage talks openly about what she learned about God, her Muslim captors, and herself during her captivity.
Christian History Corner: The Day the Ransoming Began | A gripping new book details the first American missionary hostage crisis, over 100 years ago.
In the Presence of My Enemies is available at Christianbook.com.
Previous articles on the Burnhams' captivity are available at our Martin and Gracia Burnham: CT's Full Coverage page.
Last year, Todd Hertz reported on U.S. and missions approaches to ransom payments as the government introduced its new kidnapping policy.
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