JOS, Nigeria — Boko Haram’s April kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls has brought Nigerians, as well as people across the world, into solidarity with each other across religious divides, one of the country’s bishops has said.
The girls, most of them between 16 and 18 years old, were kidnapped April 14 from their boarding school in Borno, Nigeria's northeastern-most state. Members of the radical Islamist group Boko Haram have claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. All but 53 of the girls, who escaped, are still in the hands of their captors.
“They are just innocent girls, and every human being feels bad about this. Life is sacred,” Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos told the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need May 13.
Boko Haram has been terrorizing Nigeria since 2009, but this incident attracted international attention, Archbishop Kaigama said, “I think, because they are innocent young girls and also because it touches directly the suffering of women, the mothers of these children. And women can identify themselves more with the pain of others. The women started holding demonstrations — both Christian and Muslim women. Nigerians are standing up together for freedom and dignity; a common voice is growing up, a voice that says: ‘Violence is never the way.’”
The archbishop noted that while Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is sinful,” began with opposition to Christianity and Western values, its onus has spread. The radical Islamist group has also killed moderate Muslim clergy and seeks to impose sharia (Islamic law) on Nigeria.
“It is no longer about north or south, nor about Muslims or Christians. It is about human beings,” the archbishop said.
Archbishop Kaigama noted that, while most of the kidnapped girls are Christian, “it is also true that there are some Muslims who were also kidnapped. So this incident is further evidence to show that Boko Haram is also targeting Muslims, to some extent.”
The militant group — which was labeled by the U.S. last year as a foreign terrorist organization after years of human-rights advocacy groups calling for the designation — is strongly opposed to the education of girls.
Boko Haram, the archbishop said, wants “to hurt the heart of Nigeria. I am very worried. These girls have never been outside of their village, and, now, they are in the bush. I just pray that the religious values that Boko Haram promotes are sufficient to influence them to respect the dignity of these girls.”
Boko Haram’s attacks have killed thousands since 2009; according to the BBC, they have killed 1,500 in 2014 alone. The U.N. estimates that the attacks have led to more than 470,000 internally displaced persons and some 57,000 refugees.
The Nigerian government has come under criticism for failing to provide security or to respond adequately to the mass kidnapping and to the crisis in general; on May 13, it announced its readiness to negotiate with Boko Haram for the girls’ release.
“The government underestimated the Boko Haram crisis and was therefore slow in reacting,” Archbishop Kaigama reflected. “Part of the problem is that resources were not used in the right way to provide adequate support for the security agents and the proper equipment they need to combat the violence.”
He added that, according to some security sources, Boko Haram is equipped with more sophisticated and developed weapons than are the Nigerian police and military.
At three villages in Borno on May 14, vigilantes in three villages repelled an attack by Boko Haram; an eyewitness told the BBC that some 200 militants had been killed.
It was reported that, at the same time, disgruntled Nigerian soldiers elsewhere in Borno had opened fire on the convoy of a military commander, protesting poor pay and the lack of proper equipment needed to combat Boko Haram.
Archbishop Kaigama also noted that “soldiers have been killed trying to defend people, and their families have not received enough help. It is important that these families receive assistance.”
Returning to a discussion of the abducted schoolgirls, Archbishop Kaigama said that, “at this stage, what we need to do is to pray: Only God can move the hearts of these people.”
The archbishop is praying that the kidnappers return the girls soon without harm; that Boko Haram abandons violence; and that the Nigerian government will be aided by other nations to combat terrorism, hunger and poverty.
“We pray, and we request your prayers,” he concluded. “As president of the bishops’ conference, I wrote to all the Catholics in Nigeria to have an hour of adoration, asking all the bishops, priests and faithful to offer prayer.”