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U.S. missionary worker abducted from school in Nigeria

SEATTLE -- A Seattle missionary described by friends as courageous, tenacious and passionate about helping the people of Nigeria has been abducted from a school in the violence-torn African nation, her church says.

The First Free Methodist Church said in a statement on its website that it received a report Monday morning that the Rev. Phyllis Sortor was kidnapped from the Hope Academy compound in Emiworo, Kogi state.

The message from Bishop David Kendall said the U.S. Embassy has been notified, and the State Department and the FBI are working with local authorities to find and rescue her. Kendall didn't immediately return a call and email from The Associated Press.

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Nigeria is a country marred by violence, from militants and bandits in the oil-rich south, to intra-tribal and religious violence across the center of the country to a five-year-old northeastern Islamic uprising, the last of which alone has killed 10,000 people in the past year, according to the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations.

The State Department said it was aware that a U.S. citizen has been reported missing in Nigeria, where kidnappings for ransom are common. An FBI spokeswoman in Seattle, Ayn Dietrich, said the agency is trying to confirm the reports.

Friends and colleagues said Sortor is a visionary who gets things done and doesn't back off.

"She is my inspiration of courage," Mike Henry, staff pastor of the Wenatchee Free Methodist Church in Washington state, told the AP. Henry has taken several trips to Nigeria to work with Sortor on projects, including bringing wheelchairs to polio victims, building schools and introducing a cattle-grazing program to herdsmen.

Sortor was scheduled to come to the central Washington city next week to talk about her missionary work and to help raise money to build secondary schools, Henry said.

If she learned about a village with kids, Henry said, "she would get in a canoe and travel over there, meet the kids, set up sponsorships and build a school."

Sortor's parents were missionaries in Mozambique, and she grew up there, Henry said. She graduated in 1964 from Seattle Pacific University, which is affiliated with the Free Methodist Church, said Tracy Norlen, a university spokeswoman.

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"We are proud of her untiring service to God and the people of Nigeria, and are earnestly praying for her safety and immediate release," Norlen said in a statement.

Sortor's stepson, Richard Sortor attended a prayer service Monday night at the university, telling reporters that "she believes in God, she's doing God's work," KING-TV reported.

John Van Valin, who lives outside Indianapolis and has known Sortor for about 15 years, said she's self-sacrificing, vivacious and committed to missionary work.

"She has a real passion for missionary work and helping people in need," he said. "We're just really saddened to hear the news, but we're praying a great deal. There are people all around the world who are praying for her."

According to the church website, Sortor is the financial administrator for Hope Academy; works with International Child Care Ministries, a child sponsorship program in more than 30 countries; and recently opened a school for the children of nomadic Fulani herdsmen, who are Muslim.

Hope Academy has about 400 students, teaches general education and also offers Christian classes for parents who want that for their children, Henry said.

Brenda Young, lead pastor with Cornerstone Free Methodist Church in Akron, Ohio, said she has been working with Sortor on projects to get clean drinking water to people in Nigeria. Sortor is the Nigeria contact for Clear Blue Global Water Project and helped ensure that money went directly to water projects.

Young said Sortor made her home base in Seattle when she was not overseas. Sortor and her husband, Jim, worked side by side as missionaries before his death several years ago.

"She is so passionate about her work there and trying to take care of people in Nigeria," said Young, who last communicated with Sortor several weeks ago. "She's relentless. She's very courageous. She perseveres."