The former French hostage Sophie Pétronin has shocked France by revealing that she converted to Islam during her four year captivity in Mali.
The 75 year old aid worker, as well as two Italian citizens and a prominent Malian politician, regained their freedom after being held captive by the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), which is affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
Upon her release on Thursday Pétronin declared that she would pray for Mali “to implore the blessings and mercy of Allah because I am a Muslim,” before continuing “you say Sophie, but it is Mariam that you have in front of you… I’m going to go to France, Switzerland and then I’ll come back to see what is going on here [in Mali]”.
Petronin said she had been treated relatively well during captivity.
“I hung on – I prayed a lot because I had a lot of time,” Petronin told reporters at the French embassy in Bamako. “I transformed detention … into a spiritual retreat, if one can say that.”
Petronin told French broadcasters she wanted to go back to the northern Malian town of Gao to see the children she was helping before she was kidnapped.
“I made a commitment to the children. For four years I haven’t seen how the programmes are working,” she said, referring to her work with orphaned and malnourished children. “I will go to France, to Switzerland, and then I will come back to see what’s happening here.”
During her captivity, Petronin said she was allowed to listen to the radio, and her guards shared messages and videos with her, including one from her son.
On Friday she landed in Paris and was received by President Emmanuel Macron and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian. But a planned joint press conference was abandoned without explanation.
In fiercely secular France, the fact that she converted to the religion of her captors has provoked a controversy online, especially among the far-right.
Former presidential candidate Marine Le Pen wrote on Twitter: “Our soldiers have been fighting in Mali for many years. Some of their comrades died in action. We should never compromise with Islamism and allow the release of jihadists, at the risk of further exposing our already hard-hit armies.”
Pétronin has lived in Mali since 2001 where she had been operating a children’s aid charity.
It is thought that her liberation was part of a deal in which the Malian government released several prisoners, suspected of being “Islamist fighters”, in order to secure the release of European hostages and in particular Soumaïla Cissé, an important politician in Mali.
It was not immediately known whether a ransom was paid, though anti-government groups have long funded their operations with such payments from European governments.
Macron expressed joy and relief at her release, thanked the Malian authorities and promised that the French military would continue its fight against terrorism in the west African region.