Today marks two years since Boko Haram militants stormed a girls’ school in Dapchi, Nigeria, and kidnapped more than 100 girls, among them Christian teenager Leah Sharibu. Five of the abducted girls perished. All the rest were released through back-channel efforts except Leah, who is still being held by terrorists who oscillate between threatening to kill her and vowing to keep her as a “slave for life.” It’s the price she pays for refusing to renounce her Christian faith.
U.S. officials have advocated for Leah’s safe return. In April 2018, President Trump raised the issue with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in the Oval Office. Congressional leaders, human rights advocates, and others have joined Leah’s family and the international community in calling on President Buhari to use the full extent of his power to secure her release.
Yet Leah remains in captivity and it’s unclear what – if anything – is being done to bring her home. Although unconfirmed, it’s been reported that the devout Christian has been forced to accept Islam, marry a Boko Haram commander, and gave birth to a baby boy earlier this year.
There are a number of girls still held captive from an April 2014 attack on a boarding school in Chibok as well. These girls may be forgotten by the Nigerian government, but they are not forgotten by people of conscience. Those who continue to pursue justice know that Leah and all of the kidnapped girls need to be brought home.
The Nigerian government’s failure to secure the release of Leah and so many other captives is a symptom of a longstanding and growing problem: a silent slaughter of Christians at the hands of groups like Boko Haram, the Islamic State West African Province, and Fulani militants.
Studies by domestic international organizations have found that Christians are the most widely persecuted religious group in the world. According to a report by Open Doors USA, more than 260 million Christians live in places where they experience high levels of persecution, just for following Jesus. That’s one in eight believers worldwide. Some parts of the world are worse than others, and Nigeria nears the top of the list.
According to 2020 reports, Nigerian Christians have repeatedly been the target of attacks and victims of religious and systematic persecution – with attacks becoming even more aggressive and daring under the current administration. Pew Research Center says that Nigeria is among the countries with the largest reported increase in religious violence by organized groups since 2007. This trend has earned Nigeria a spot as the 12th worst in the world in terms of Christian persecution. In December, the country was placed on the State Department’s “special watch list” of countries that tolerate or engage in severe violations of religious freedom.
While some try to argue that the violence isn’t motivated by religion, the State Department’s 2018 International Religious Freedom Report found that Boko Haram has targeted 900 churches since the insurgency began. It also reports instances of Christian worshipers and priests being slaughtered, even during church services. Just last month, the Rev. Lawan Andimi was beheaded by Boko Haram after refusing to deny Christ; Pastor Denis Baguari of the Lutheran Church of Nigeria, a well-known political advocate for Christians, was reportedly killed in a night attack; and the Islamic State released a video of an 8-year-old child soldier killing a Christian man in Nigeria and another showing the beheading of 10 Christian aid workers.
Month after month of this continuous violence has taken its toll. Since 2015, the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust estimates that more than 6,000 Christians have been killed in Nigeria (1,000 in 2019 alone) and thousands have been displaced from their homes. The Jubilee Campaign, an international human rights nongovernmental organization, wrote a report to the International Criminal Court last July stating that “the standard of genocide has now been reached” in Nigeria.
While this genocide may seem worlds away, the effects are vast and far-reaching. Journalist John L. Allen Jr. recently said that, “if things go bad, the consequences won’t be confined to Nigeria’s borders but could spark economic, military and cultural upheaval around the world.” Allen asserts that Nigeria may be nearing its tipping point and warned the international community that it’s unclear “how much longer the country will be spared a larger eruption if the violence continues and the perception [continues] that authorities are unable, or unwilling, to do anything about it.”
I couldn’t agree more. That’s why action is so critical. Inaction against these terrorist groups only emboldens them to take more extreme actions. The Nigerian government and the international community must immediately increase efforts to secure Leah’s release and reunite her with her family. The United States government must do its part to keep the eyes of the world focused on Leah and demand her freedom. Beyond that, we need to send a clear message to the Nigerian government that the silent slaughter of Nigeria’s Christians will not be tolerated.