After abducted Nigerian priest Fr. Valentine Ezeugu was released Wednesday, his religious congregation said it was praying for the conversion of his kidnappers.

“We are very grateful to God who touched the hearts of the kidnappers to release our brother,” Fr. Goodluck Ajacro, secretary general of the Congregation of the Sons of Mary Mother of Mercy, said in a statement announcing the priest’s release Dec. 16.

“We pray for the conversion of the kidnappers and all those that are into various forms of crime. To God be the glory!”

Ezeugu was driving in Nigeria’s southeastern Imo State Dec. 15 at 8 a.m. when four armed men came out from the bush and forced him to the back of his car before speeding away, a statement from the priest’s religious congregation said, citing an eyewitness from the road.

He had been en route to his home village in Anambra state, where his father’s funeral Mass is scheduled to be held on Dec. 17.

The Congregation of the Sons of Mary Mother of Mercy expressed gratitude to all who joined in praying for the priest’s release.

“We call on the government at all levels to invest more in securing the lives and properties of citizens as well as provide job opportunities and the enabling environment so that our teaming youths will be meaningfully engaged,” Ajacro said.

The priest’s kidnapping came a week after the U.S. government designated Nigeria as a “country of particular concern” for engaging in or tolerating “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom,” along with other countries including China and Saudi Arabia.

The Nigerian-based Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa were also designated by the U.S. State Department as “Entities of Particular Concern.”

On Dec. 15, the Islamist militant group Boko Haram claimed responsibility for an attack on a school last week in the northwestern Nigerian state of Katsina. Hundreds of schoolboys were kidnapped and 300 remain missing.

Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Abuja decried the high rate of kidnappings and deaths, calling for the government to take more security measures.

“The incidents of killings and kidnapping currently going on in Nigeria is now posing a significant threat to all the citizens,” he wrote in a Facebook post Dec. 15.

“Right now, insecurity is the greatest challenge facing the nation. The level of incidents and the apparent impunity have become unacceptable and cannot be excused, for whatever reason,” he said.

The archbishop stressed that the Nigerian government’s primary responsibility enshrined in its constitution was the “protection of lives and property of its citizens irrespective of ethnic and/or religious persuasion.”

In 2020, at least eight priests and seminarians have been kidnapped in Nigeria, including 18-year-old seminarian Michael Nnadi, who was killed after gunmen kidnapped him and three other seminarians in an attack on Good Shepherd Seminary in Kaduna.

The Nigerian International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law reported in May that at least 20 Christian clergy, including Catholic priests and seminarians, have been killed in Nigeria since June 2015, and another 50 have been abducted over the past 5 years.

Kaigama noted that “victims of ideologically motivated kidnappings face a higher threat of death and may experience longer times in captivity.”

“Boko Haram violence, kidnappings and banditry represent gross violations of human rights. It is important to pay attention to all the stages, processes and trends of the occurrences because they are interrelated. Structural injustices meted out to youths and minority groups are appalling, and if unchecked may lead us to a point of no return,” he said.

Catholic Bishops in Nigeria have repeatedly called on the government to impose strict measures to protect her citizens.

“It is just unimaginable and inconceivable to celebrate Nigeria at 60 when our roads are not safe; our people are kidnapped, and they sell their properties to pay ransom to criminals,” members of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria wrote in a statement on Oct. 1.

“Our hope is in God who never fails. Human beings may fail us, but those who put their hope and trust in God will always be delivered. With hope, faith, and charity, let us pray and work for the good of Nigeria,” the bishops said.

“Let us not despair in the face of these daunting challenges and crises facing our beloved country. May Christ help to transform us, for us to transform Nigeria.”