WASHINGTON — Denouncing the “heinous” kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria, the U.S. bishops have urged their government to partner with both Christians and Muslims in the country to counter Boko Haram.
“Building unity among all Nigerians will help build peace and prosperity for all,” Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, told National Security Adviser Susan Rice in a May 9 letter.
“I am encouraged that the United States government has taken additional measures to help the Nigerian government bring perpetrators to justice,” continued Bishop Pates, who is chair of the U.S. bishops’ International Justice and Peace Committee.
Nearly 300 girls, most of them aged between 16 and 18, were kidnapped April 14 from their boarding school in Borno, Nigeria’s northeastern-most state, by members of the radical Islamist group Boko Haram. All but 53 of the girls, who escaped, are still in the hands of their captors.
Bishop Pates encouraged the United States to help the Nigerian government promote national security and social development.
“Partner with civil society, especially faith-based institutions, both Christian and Muslim, to strengthen their efforts to stop the violence and build social cohesion,” he encouraged. “Their efforts will be crucial in counteracting the extremist religious views espoused by Boko Haram.”
Bishop Pates said the Church in Nigeria has called for “continuous dialogue” among political, military and religious leaders to end the violence. The Church has also called for “effective policy and military action” to bring violent perpetrators to justice, “while respecting human and civil rights.”
He asked the United States to increase its support for the Church, which has “always been a voice for peace” and has “actively worked” with the Muslim community in interfaith dialogue and in “people to people peace-building.”
Bishop Pates cited the words of Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja, who has called for the defense of religious freedom. The cardinal called this “the second most important right, after the right to life itself.”
The Des Moines bishop said he has written to the Nigerian cardinal to express the U.S. bishops’ condolences at the kidnappings and to encourage the Nigerian people “in their constant efforts to counter the forces of religious extremism and social division.”
Boko Haram (which means “Western education is sinful”) launched an uprising in 2009 and hopes to impose sharia (Islamic) law on Nigeria. It has targeted security forces, politicians, Christian minorities and moderate Muslims in Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north.
The April 14 kidnapping caused an international outcry and drew condemnation from Christian and Muslim religious leaders. The Nigerian government has come under criticism for failing to provide security or to respond adequately to the mass kidnapping.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau threatened to sell the captured girls into slavery. In a video released May 12, he said the group will keep as captives any girls who have not accepted Islam.
He has offered to exchange the other girls for Boko Haram members currently in prison, but Nigeria’s interior minister has rejected the offer.
Boko Haram’s attacks have killed thousands since 2009; according to the BBC, they have killed 1,500 in 2014 alone. The United Nations estimates that the attacks have led to more than 470,000 internally displaced persons in Nigeria.
The United States recognized Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization in November 2013, after a lengthy advocacy effort from human rights and Christian groups.
Pope Francis has joined people around the world in praying for the kidnapped young women. On May 10, he tweeted @Pontifex, "Let us join in prayer for the immediate release of the schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria. #BringBackOurGirls."