For more than a year, a young Nigerian girl has become a de facto poster child – a lovely human face gracing the story of Nigeria’s persecuted Christians. Her name is Leah Sharibu, and she has been held captive for more than a year by Boko Haram terrorists. It has been widely reported that Leah remains in captivity because she refuses to deny her Christian faith and convert to Islam.
Leah’s mother recently visited Washington, DC, where I had an opportunity to speak to her about her daughter, and about her own tireless efforts to see Leah released.
When I met Rebecca Sharibu, her subdued attire and weary face spoke volumes about her state of mind. Through a translator, she explained to me that her daughter Leah was just 14 years old in February 2018 when she was abducted by Boko Haram. She has been in captivity ever since.
Leah and her classmates were rounded up during an attack on Dapchi, a small village in Yobe State. When Boko Haram shot its way into town, panic ensued and everyone fled. Terror and confusion roiled throughout the night. Once the scattered students returned to their classes, a roll call revealed that 110 girls were missing – including Leah.
Ms. Sharibu’s face is lined with pain and she rarely smiles. She’s a woman on a mission, but she is clearly exhausted and emotionally spent. She has received no information about her daughter since last August. At the time, she participated in an appeal to the Nigerian government to meet Boko Haram’s demands. She has heard nothing since.
I asked her if she’s been given any information about her daughter’s condition. “We don’t even know where Leah is,” she reminded me. “We have not seen her. We have not heard from her. I have no idea.”
After a moment, she continued. “I have come here to plead with your government and with all the people: Please do whatever you can. Please put pressure in every way possible on your government to help us.”
She paused to calm herself, then concluded. “I do want to thank you all for the prayers that you’ve been praying. I want my daughter back. I need my daughter back.”
Unfortunately, Boko Haram are not the only vicious killers in Nigeria. Another group, commonly called the Fulani, is comprised of tribal nomads. Their trademark activity is invasion of villages, mass murder, seizure of property, burning of homes and churches, and abductions for ransom.
Considering Israel’s own unique history, it’s no wonder that Israelis are particularly sensitive to genocidal attacks on minorities. So I wasn’t altogether surprised when my friend Atara Beck, a journalist at World Israel News, first contacted me a couple of years ago about terrible carnage being suffered by West African Christians.
Desperate appeals had come to Beck in the form of private messages on social media. At first it wasn’t clear to either one of us what the bloodshed was about. Later we learned that the violence in Christian villages in Nigeria and the surrounding countries was being inflicted by invaders called Fulani tribesmen.
THESE RUTHLESS assaults are sometimes reported as ethnic or tribal conflicts, or as clashes over grazing land for Fulani cattle. However, Christian organizations have increasingly claimed that some Fulani are, in fact, jihadis.
In April, President Donald Trump raised this issue in Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s presence. “We’ve had very serious problems with Christians who have been murdered, killed in Nigeria,” Trump told reporters, with Buhari seated next to him. “We’re going to be... working on that problem very, very hard because we can’t allow that to happen.”
So far, the remark seems to have fallen on deaf ears while Buhari has been re-elected.
The 2019 United States Commission on International Religious Freedom report explained: “Given the myriad ways that religious, ethnic and tribal identities are intertwined, it can be difficult to determine the basis or catalyst for violence: Violence stemming from disputes over land or water, for example, can become immersed in and exacerbate religious differences. Similarly, clashes between farmer and herder communities can also take place across – or be perceived to be due to – religious and ethnic divides, as herders are primarily Muslim, and farmers Christian.”
In recent years, it has become clear that the ever-intensifying bloodshed – including mass murders, burned and looted homes and villages, and a swelling tide of displaced persons – is primarily aimed at Christians. It is also true that some Christians are arming themselves in self-defense. Meanwhile, verbal testimony from survivors points to jihadi-style incursions and scorched-earth tactics, and not merely to the confiscation of pastures.
To simplify, there seem to be two primary tracks for kidnapping and killing in Nigeria. Most obvious is the notorious Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram, which has pledged fealty to Islamic State. Its savage invasions continue to sweep through the country, attacking homes, schools, churches and entire villages. Their abducted victims are often subject to rape, sexual slavery, forced marriages and other sexual violence along with demands for ransom or forced conversion to Islam.
This has been Leah Sharibu’s story. She is a devoted Christian, and the now-released Muslim girls who were kidnapped along with her testify that she repeatedly refused to renounce her faith, so her captors proclaimed her “enslaved for life.”
In the meantime, Fulani devastation is increasing, and as with Boko Haram, seemingly without consequence. Worse, Nigeria’s trail of bloodshed and mounting number of fatalities is broadening, distressing international observers and underscoring the grave necessity for a neutral rapporteur or special envoy.
In short, Nigeria is plagued by a highly explosive mixture of “terrorism and ethno-religious violence.” There are increasing warnings of another impending genocide.
I fear they may be right.
The writer is an expert on religious persecution, an author and 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. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @lelagilbert.
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