This blog is part of an International Religious Freedom 101 series providing an overview of religious freedom challenges in countries around the world. Read our previous installments on Turkey, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Uzbekistan.
Varied Threats to Religious Freedom
Leah Sharibu was 14 years old when she and more than 100 other students from Dapchi Girls’ Science and Technical College were abducted by Boko Haram extremists. After months of captivity, all the surviving girls were freed except for Sharibu. The reason why she was kept captive was clear: she had refused to convert to Islam from Christianity. Three years later, she remains a captive Christian, refusing to convert and risking death each and every day at the hands of Islamist terrorists.
Nigeria is one of the fastest-growing nations in the world in terms of population and GDP. However, its distinction as a regional powerhouse is darkened by the brutal reality that exists for the millions of Christians living as minorities in the country. An openness to Sharia law—which permeates the judicial systems in several of Nigeria’s states—and the frequent threat of Islamist terror attacks and kidnappings make the country an especially threatening environment for Christians.
Bring Back Our Girls: The Rise and Fall of International Attention
Nigerian Christians have been targeted and murdered for their faith. But in recent years, terrorism and brutality in the form of kidnapping and sexual violence caused the eyes of the world to focus on Nigeria to an extent they hadn’t before. In April 2014, 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped from their school in Chibok, in the northeast part of the country. These girls were forced to convert to Islam and marry Muslim men, primarily Boko Haram militants. To this day, more than 100 of the Chibok girls have not been freed.
Joy Bishara was one of the Chibok girls. She was one of the lucky ones who escaped captivity soon after capture, risking her life by jumping off the truck she was abducted in and running for safety until her bleeding feet couldn’t run anymore. Knowing the fate she might have faced at the hands of the terrorists, she chose the possibility of death over a life of being battered and abused in captivity. Bishara recently told her story at the 2021 International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C.
The news of the schoolgirl kidnappings was much of the world’s first exposure to the grim reality facing persecuted Christians in Nigeria. Yet, this crucial moment was too briefly part of the international consciousness, and major steps still need to be taken to address the ongoing crisis. Given the world’s fading attention and general inaction, it comes as no surprise that brazen militants have continued their acts of terror in recent days. More than 140 schoolchildren were kidnapped in July 2021 from their school in Kaduna state, representing a share of the more than 1,000 kidnappings that have occurred in the nation since December 2020. Parents are scared to send their children to school, fearing for their safety. This has set back education for young boys and girls alike.
The kidnappings take place amid the backdrop of larger violence against Christians from Jihadi terrorists and Fulani militants. By one estimate, 3,462 Christians were killed in Nigeria in the first half of this year. The State Department last year officially labeled Nigeria a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) on religious freedom. This is obviously a well-deserved title—more Christians are killed due to their faith in Nigeria than in any other country. Unfortunately, current Nigerian leaders have shown little concern for this unfolding crisis. Secretary of State Blinken should focus his efforts on keeping pressure on Nigerian leaders to protect its own people from rampant attacks.
An Uncertain Future
The violence in Nigeria that captivated the public eye in 2014 has not ceased, nor should the attention we pay to this key part of the world. No one should live in fear of attack because of their religious identity. Yet, in Nigeria, millions live with this fear every day. The U.S. State Department should make better use of their diplomatic tools to promote basic human rights for suffering Nigerians.