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03/23/2024 Nigeria (International Christian Concern) – A deep ocean of tears continues to flow in Nigeria as Christian girls and women are forced into marriages, some as children, and made to convert to Islam. For decades, millions of women and girls in the West African nation have been subjected to rape, sexually transmitted diseases, and physical and mental abuse as a result of forced marriage and compelled conversion to Islam by Muslim extremists.

A YOUNG LIFE STOLEN

Christian girls are often targeted and abducted to become child brides and modern-day slaves for their captors as a result of widespread religious intolerance and discrimination against Christians within Nigeria. As of 2021, data from UNICEF revealed that just over 30% of Nigerian women aged 20 to 24 had been married before reaching the age of 18, and 12% of women in the same age group were married before their 15th birthday. An untold number of these marriages were forced upon the girls as they were given the choice to convert to Islam and be wed or to suffer torture and death.

Attacks and abductions of Christian girls are often carried out by the Islamic terrorist group known as Boko Haram, whose name literally translates to “Western education is forbidden.” The terrorists view the girls as inferior because of their Christian faith and subject them to abhorrent abuse.

In April 2014, 276 girls were abducted from a secondary school in Chibok, Nigeria by Boko Haram. As written in a scholarly assessment of slavery within Boko Haram, one of the survivors recounted the horrors of what she endured.

“I do not know what hell fire is like, but a day in BH [Boko Haram] captivity may be worse than 100 days there for a non-Muslim captive,” she explained. “Some Muslim women treated us worse than their husbands did to us. Those women were holding non-Muslim girls for their husbands to assault, rape, and torture.”

As of April 2023, nine years after the brutal abductions, 98 of the 276 girls were still in Boko Haram captivity. According to Amnesty International, the parents of the remaining missing girls allege the Nigerian government has cut off communication with them and callously forgotten their daughters.

Attacks like the one in Chibok have occurred time and again. On February 19, 2018, a terrorist group connected with Boko Haram, the Islamic State – Western Africa Province (ISWAP), attacked a school in Dapchi, Nigeria and abducted 110 girls. Five of the girls died from trampling and suffocation during the attack and 104 of the girls were eventually returned to their families. One remaining girl, Leah Sharibu, was never freed and continues to be held captive by the terrorists because of her refusal to renounce her faith in Jesus Christ. She was 14 years old at the time of her capture and has remained a prisoner for nearly six years.

Following her abduction, the Leah Foundation was established in her honor. The organization advocates for Leah as well as others who are being held against their wills to be released. Additionally, it provides sponsorship for girls’ education.

A safehouse, called the Leah Foundation Hope & Freedom Center was also created on August 1, 2020. Since that time, approximately 120 survivors of terrorism have been helped by the center. The women may remain in the safehouse for a period of 8 to 11 months, during which time they are given Biblical discipleship, housing, food, education, and counseling. They are also offered valuable skills and job training in the fields of catering, tailoring, bead making, knitting, hair styling, and literacy in order to attain a level of independence.

After the women and girls have learned a skill, they graduate and are introduced to women’s fellowship groups in local churches so that they may have a continued network of support. Representatives from the Leah Foundation follow up with the survivors as well to assist in their continued recovery.

AN ATTORNEY’S MISSION

Others in the nation have also taken up the cause of standing up for young Nigerian girls who have been brutalized and forced into marriages against their wills.

Abishag Sambo, an attorney in Nigeria, has made it her mission to help victims of forced marriage in returning home after they have been abducted.

Known locally as “the voice for the voiceless,” Abishag has fought courageously for many years to rescue Christians from unspeakable situations. When speaking with ICC, she explained that Christian pastors and parents of the victims come to her for help when their daughters have been taken.

Abishag told of the horrific reality of girls as young as eight years old being abducted and forced to convert to Islam. They are often raped and treated as less than human. Some of the girls contract HIV and many are impregnated after they are forcibly married. In some cases, a Christian girl will be abducted, the terrorists will change her name, and they will send a letter to the girl’s family stating that she has converted to Islam and wants to be married.

After the girls are “married,” their husbands continue to abuse them and hold them in slavery, treating them as “second-class citizens,” Abishag explained. She spoke of the lack of compassion from the Nigerian courts and justice system toward the victims, leaving the families with little recourse.

The memory of one girl in particular remains with Abishag to this day. It is the story of a 12-year-old girl who was caught and raped to the point of death by three Muslim boys. Abishag had helped the girl in a previous situation prior to the horrendous act that was perpetrated against her.

Abishag’s heart was broken in pieces and, because of her immense compassion for the victim, she vowed to get justice for the young girl.

She prosecuted the three rapists and successfully secured life prison sentences for all three. The court was persuaded due to the fact that it was murder versus forced marriage.

Though difficult, through Abishag’s incredibly hard work and God-given passion for the victims and families she represents, the girls are sometimes freed from their Muslim captors. She relentlessly visits police stations, makes court appearances, and advocates for the release of Christian girls.

On one occasion, Abishag gathered a group of women to loudly protest the capture of a Christian girl whose mother was a widow. They wailed and screamed in front of the local police station until finally the girl was released. She stated that when a girl who has been abducted gets released, she cries “tears of joy” and kneels down to thank God for their release.

Abishag explained that she has been threatened with violence and attempted intimidation but she has not given up. She explained that the police told her she may be in danger of a prison cell if she didn’t stop advocating for the girls. Abishag boldly responded to them, saying that even if she were to be put in a cell, she would not stop shouting for the victims.

Attacks and abductions like those in Chibok, Dapchi, and many other instances have prompted many Christians in Nigeria and around the globe to conclude that a genocide of Christians is occurring in the country and the Nigerian government is looking the other way.

The current presidential administration in the United States appears to be doing the same thing. In 2021, the Biden administration removed Nigeria from the annual Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list. It had been added to the CPC list in 2020 by then-President Donald Trump. The list names countries whose actions have egregiously infringed upon the religious freedoms of their citizens. When a country is placed on the list, a special envoy from the United States may be assigned to oversee and assure positive change is made within the CPC to remedy its religious freedoms violations.

Despite adding Boko Haram as an Entity of Particular Concern, the country of Nigeria remained off of the list once again this year. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) expressed its disappointment with the administration’s decision in a statement posted to its website.

“There is no justification as to why the State Department did not designate Nigeria…as a Country of Particular Concern despite its own reporting and statements,” the declaration read. “USCIRF calls on Congress to convene a public hearing on the failure of the State Department to follow our recommendations.”

The Christian women and girls of Nigeria are strong and courageous. They have taken stands for Jesus and suffered for their faith in ways we cannot imagine. Let us remember their trials and suffering as we pray that our Almighty God would soften the hearts of Nigerian leaders and continue to bless those fighting for the hope and faith found in Jesus alone.

Those of us at ICC would also like to thank the Leah Foundation and the brave work of Abishag Sambo for all they do to help Christian women and girls. And to all the unsung heroes working for Jesus and following His commandments to help the least of us, we thank God for you.

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