The first time many Americans focused their attention on the violence-torn African country of Nigeria was in April 2014.
That was when some 276 young girls – mostly Christian – were kidnapped by the Islamist terror group Boko Haram.
Social media erupted with the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag, and a small army of Hollywood A-listers joined in, along with then-first lady Michelle Obama. Their images were splashed around the globe as they held signs declaring: "BringBackOurGirls."
Even then, the perilous conditions of Christians in northern Nigeria were not fully apparent. And few grasped Nigeria's vital role in the economy of Africa, and the world.
In recent days, shocking reports have once again made their way to the West spotlighting the brutality of Islamist thugs, and the increasing vulnerability of Christians.
Just Wednesday, I received an alarming email from a Nigerian journalist – a longtime Christian friend who must remain anonymous.
"These are difficult times for Christians in the northern part of Nigeria," he explained. "When their school girls are not being abducted by Islamist terrorists, as in Dapchi where 110 girls were recently seized without trace from their schools, their little daughters are being forcefully converted to Islam and married off without the consent of their parents, as in Kaduna State.
"Or they are massacred by marauding herdsmen as in Benue State, where 73 villagers were killed on New Year's Day.
"These Christians are refusing to budge," he added, "but they need help. Someone needs to pressure the Nigerian authorities to act strongly and impartially against these dastardly acts. So far, the government has not done so."
The BBC reported March 1: "The kidnapping of 110 girls from a school in the northeastern Nigerian town of Dapchi bears striking similarities to the 2014 abduction of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok – right down to the contradictory information from the authorities . . ."
Such stories are certainly tragic, but they are quickly eclipsed by bad news from some other global bloodbath. Most of us assume there is nothing we can do but pray.
However, in the case of Nigeria, the rationale for bringing pressure to bear on the Nigerian government transcends sorrow and compassion.
Former Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., a Distinguished Senior Fellow for 21Wilberforce and served 34 consecutive years in the U.S. House of Representatives, remains a stalwart champion of international human rights, religion freedom, and persecuted minorities.
He traveled to Nigeria about a year and a half ago, and just last week hosted a conference of 25 Nigerian Christians. His concern often pinpoints persecution and abuse. But when I contacted him about Nigeria, he pointed out there is more at stake there than coldhearted terrorist behavior.
Rep. Wolf explained Nigeria is the largest nation in Africa, with a population of 186 million. Of those about 86 million, or 46 percent, are Christian.
Year after year, Nigeria is the top economic performer in Africa. It is also a key regional force, capable of stabilizing – or destabilizing – the surrounding countries – Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mali.
With this in mind, it is noteworthy Burkina Faso suffered an Islamist terrorist attack March 2, in which at least 35 died and some 90 were injured. And in late November 2017, four U.S. Special Ops soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger.
Although ISIS, aka Islamic State, might be losing ground in the Middle East, it is still able to implement terror attacks on a global scale. Boko Haram, the most notorious and active terror group in Nigeria and its neighborhood, has formally pledged allegiance to ISIS.
Wolf told me there are enormous numbers of Nigerians entering Europe as refugees – nearly 30,000 in 2016 – arriving in Italy via Libya. Meanwhile, human trafficking of female Nigerians is a massive criminal problem in Italy. These issues underscore ways Nigerian destabilization affects not just Africa but the West.
He also quoted an unexpected source he believes accurately understands the significance of Nigeria: Bono, of U2 fame. A human rights activist himself, Bono has invested considerable time in Africa.
Bono told The New York Times in September 2016: "There's so much strategic importance in Nigeria — that's why it's odd that there's not more focus on what's happening. It's pathetic. If Nigeria fails, Africa fails. If Africa fails, Europe fails. And if Europe fails, America is no longer America."
As for the BringBackOurGirls campaign? Frank Wolf thinks, in the captors' eyes, it actually increased the monetary value of every Boko Haram kidnapping victim.
Wolf sees the situation as even more urgent now than it was then: Instead of applauding the hashtags, the Nigerian government, led by President Muhammadu Buhari, needs to crackdown on terrorists and those who support them.
Indeed, that might be a requisite for his government's survival, as reported in an AFP story headlined: "Nigeria's Buhari Under Pressure Over Boko Haram Abduction, Attacks."
If Wolf is right in his view that Nigeria is a global lynchpin, then both the United States and Europe must act decisively – until Boko Haram and its ISIS cohorts are eliminated once and for all.
Lela Gilbert is an internationally recognized expert on religious persecution, an award-winning writer, and an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute who lived in Jerusalem for over a decade. Her book "Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel Through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner" received wide critical acclaim. She is also co-author of "Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians," and "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion." Follow her on Twitter @lelagilbert.
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