From Torture to Triumph: Religious Freedom at Work

July 15, 2021

"It would be better for my parents to find my corpse in a ditch than risk what Boko Haram would do to me."
- Joy Bishara

It was the middle of the night -- the only time of day when girls like Joy could slip into sleep and forget. On a dark April night, that fragile peace was shattered when she was nudged out of her dreams by a friend in her dorm. "Something is wrong," her classmate whispered. Outside, they heard the gunshots, coming from every direction. "Boko Haram is here." Startled awake, the girls looked at each other in silent terror. They all knew what the noises meant. The terrorists, the ones from their worst nightmares, had come.

It's been seven years and three months since that horrible day in Chibok, Nigeria. In that time, Joy has told her story hundreds of times -- to congressmen, ambassadors, world leaders, who all respond the same way -- in stunned silence. She talks about huddling in the room with the other girls, praying that if they were taken, their families would somehow be kept safe. She remembers the man who appeared in their doorway, pretending to be a soldier who would protect them -- and the horrifying moment she realized he was not. "It was too late to run," Joy says quietly. "They were all around us with guns and bombs." She pictures being hurried past her school, engulfed in flames that were close enough to singe their hair.

For a split second, she felt a rush of relief. Maybe the men planned to leave them there, under a tree. "They told us to never go to school again. And my thought was, 'If they're telling us this, they're going to let us go.' But it wasn't like that." Joy heard the rumble of the trucks heading toward town and knew who they were meant for. "They were taking us away," she realized. "If you want to live, get in the truck." One after another, they climbed in. Tears welled in her eyes. "I was like, is this the end of all of my struggling? All of my studying? All of my dreaming of becoming a doctor? Is this where it's going to end? I gave up. I decided -- if this is what God wants, then it's okay."

She never stopped praying, as the wheels rumbled down the road. Looking around at her friends, most of them were crying -- gripped by the same fear that they would never see their families again. Suddenly, words -- as clear as day -- came to her. "Jump!" it urged. Joy looked down at the road and thought, no way. They were moving fast and the truck beds were too high. The thought came to her that it would be better for her parents to find her corpse in a ditch than risk what Boko Haram would do to her. A friend tried to talk her out of it. "They'll shoot us," she whispered. Joy said she didn't care. With one motion, she leapt out of the back and onto her stomach on the hard ground. She got up, looked back at the truck, and started sprinting toward the bush through rocks and thorns -- running until her feet bled.

When she and her friend got to the village, hours and hours later, parents grabbed her arms and asked, "Where are the students? Where are the rest of the girls?" Everyone was crying, Joy remembers. "I don't know," she said sadly. "I don't know."

Today, there are thousands of parents in Nigeria going to bed every night praying that wherever their children are -- they're safe. The terrorists are still hunting Christians in the south, snatching them away without a trace. When Joy told her story at FRC's breakout on Christian Persecution in Africa during this week's International Religious Freedom Summit, families were still searching for 100 children missing from the latest attack at Bethel Baptist School. The ones who've returned will probably do as she did -- leave their homes every night to sleep in the bush where the gunmen might not find them. "Boko Haram will come back," they all thought. "I never felt safe," Joy says. Her people still don't.

It's what former Ambassador Sam Brownback meant when he said, "If we don't have religious freedom for all around the world, we will have the clash of civilizations full of death and carnage." On "Washington Watch" Wednesday, he shook his head at what's taking place in Africa. "You've got all this killing taking place... we've got all of these Islamic terrorist groups targeting it -- and they're seeing an opportunity here to drive a wedge and create a caliphate." In China, he warns, things -- in some ways -- are even worse. The communist party is brutal, they've got technology, and hundreds of millions of people to use as potential targets.

"But we've got an answer," Brownback insisted, "and the answer is religious freedom for everybody everywhere. If you just guarantee this, then the Nigerian government is called upon to protect the Christians, the Indian government can't [give] Hindu radicals [a pass]." The message would be: "This is not what the world stands for." It doesn't matter who's in the White House, Brownback argued. We shouldn't be dependent on the government to fight this battle. "It needs to be done by civil society advocates who every day wake up thinking, 'What can I do to help on religious freedom and push back on persecution?' ...This is about your human right. Let's fight for it together.'"

The good news is -- people are committed to fighting for girls like Joy. More than a thousand of them are gathered in D.C. at this moment, telling their stories and working together to bring this fundamental freedom to our brothers and sisters around the world. And as Christians, we should be especially invested in this effort -- not just because it's the right thing to do, but so that every man, woman, and child has the freedom to choose and the freedom to change their religion. Most of the over seven billion people on this planet do not get the privilege of experiencing the freedoms that we take for granted here in America. It's a distant dream to love Jesus and serve Him openly. Now is our chance to make that dream a reality.

For more on the Summit or to watch online, check out