The fate of a 15-year-old Nigerian girl could decide whether sectarian war breaks out in Nigeria, authorities warn.
Boko Haram returned 105 of the 111 girls it had abducted in February — but Leah Sharibu was not among them. The reason: The extremists said she had refused to renounce her Christian faith.
According to the Nigerian Daily Post, both the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and the Pentecostal Christian Association are warning that if Sharibu dies in Boko Haram hands it could touch off a full-blown religious war. Nigeria is 50 percent Muslim, 40 percent Christian, and 10 percent indigenous beliefs.
“Leah Sharibu must not die,” declared CAN spokesman Adebayo Oladeji. “Her death, God forbid, can spell doom for Nigeria. It can give an open invitation to religious war because Leah is being detained purely because of her religion.” Bishop Emmah Isong of the Pentecostal Christian Association warned that “the peace of this country hangs on the federal government promise to secure the release of Leah Sharibu.”
He added: “She has become an ambassador of Christianity to the Republic of Boko Haram and we are demanding that she returns home safely to her parents.”
After Newsmax’s Faith and Freedom column and other outlets spotlighted the ongoing, mortal dangers that Christians face daily in Nigeria, President Donald Trump personally raised the issue during his April 30 meeting with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari.
In his remarks at a joint White House press conference, Mr. Trump unequivocally pointed out to President Buhari: “…we’re deeply concerned by religious violence in Nigeria, including the burning of churches, and the killing and persecution of Christians. It’s a horrible story. We encourage Nigeria and the federal, state, and local leaders to do everything in their power to immediately secure the affected communities and to protect innocent civilians of all faiths, including Muslims and including Christians.”
It is highly unusual for an American president to speak publicly to a world leader in defense of Christians.
No doubt one reason for Mr. Trump’s statement was another horrifying incident that had taken place just days before, in which two Catholic priests and more than a dozen of their parishioners were murdered.
CruxNow reported: “Father Moses Iorapuu, the director of communications for the Diocese of Makurdi, identified the murdered priests as Father Joseph Gor and Father Felix Tyolaha of St. Ignatius Catholic Church. The attack happened during the early morning Mass.”
Prior to being murdered, Father Gor had written on Facebook: “Living in fear. The Fulani herdsmen are still around us in Mbalom. They refuse to go. They still go grazing around us. No weapons to depend on ourselves….’”
Then, tragically, more anti-Christian violence struck another troubled African country on May 2.
A grenade-and-gunfire massacre took place during mass at Notre Dame de Fatima Roman Catholic church in the Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui.
At least 26 worshippers were either slaughtered on the spot or died later in hospitals.
The New York Times reported: “Several thousand worshipers were at the church at the time, said Kessy Ekomo-Soignet, a grass-roots activist who runs a youth program in Bangui. The church’s priest, the Rev. Toungoumale Baba, was among the dead. To protest the violence, a large crowd carried Father Baba’s body to the presidential palace, witnesses said.”
It was the second time Notre Dame de Fatima church has been violently attacked in the past four years, and the attacks were blamed on the outlawed Seleka Militia.
While both Nigeria and the Central African Republic have become increasingly deadly neighborhoods for Christians, the international spotlight has shined brightest on Nigeria, where Boko Haram and Faluni Herdsmen have wrought havoc among Christian communities.
I spoke to my colleague Nina Shea, Director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, about these persistent and deadly attacks.
“It is very significant that President Trump raised the issue of Christian persecution with Nigeria’s president,” Shea told me. “The State Department must incorporate the concern for Christian persecution in its Nigeria policies going forward.”
Shea went on to say: “In both Nigeria and Central African Republic, churches, priests and pastors have become prime targets of these brutal Islamists.
“The intensifying violence in Nigeria is the result of the growth of Boko Haram and other extreme Islamist influences, including ISIS. Their ideological goal is to fight and kill ‘infidels’ such as Christians, in order to eradicate Christianity and dominate other Muslims.
“And it is demonstrably untrue that these attacks are simply a fight over resources and services as the Obama administration maintained. Boko Haram was one of the jihadi groups that joined in the Seleka Militia, which overthrew the government of the Central African Republic in 2013. Its disbanded members continue to strike Christians there.”
It is indeed significant that President Trump spoke out in defense of Nigeria’s Christians. It is also noteworthy he recently brought up the case of unjustly imprisoned pastor Andrew Brunson to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
For those of us who write and speak and pray about the perils faced by millions of Christians and others in today’s troubled world, President Trump’s willingness to add his voice to ours is, frankly, an unexpected blessing.
Along with countless people of prayer, and with those endangered believers, we are most grateful.
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. For more from her Faith a Freedom blog, Click Here.
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