ABUJA, Nigeria — It was faith that compelled us to travel to Nigeria last week to see for ourselves the simmering crisis threatening parts of Africa’s wealthiest and most populous country. “Do not stand by idly,” the Book of Leviticus commands, “when the blood of your neighbor is being spilled” (19:16).
Well, blood is flowing like a river through this sprawling country, and it is being spilled at the hands of the Islamist terrorists of Boko Haram and lawless tribesmen. Dozens of victims shared accounts of almost incomprehensible suffering.
A 9-year-old girl told us about watching terrorists murder her parents and siblings with machetes. A pastor whose church had been destroyed twice met with us soon after negotiating the release of two female parishioners kidnapped by Boko Harem while en route to a Christmas celebration. The young women next to him, newly released, still showing signs of shock.
They recounted how the terrorists had captured them at their “checkpoint” within earshot of a state police outpost. One of the young women was sharp enough to keep her phone on and concealed. It allowed the local authorities to locate them. Yet government troops who came within visual distance of the girls chose not to rescue them.
So, the women’s unbreakable pastor took the situation into his own hands. He began to communicate with the terrorists. The ransom demanded was a fortune for any individual in his modest town. So he sold virtually all his possessions, as did other church members, to pay the thousand dollars required to save their lives.
Risking his own life, he drove to the designated place for the exchange in the hope that the terrorists would fulfill the agreement they had reached; mercifully, they did.
Other stories didn’t end so happily. We met men from a village razed entirely by the Islamists. The livelihoods were sabotaged, their families’ massacred. The attackers waited till the middle of the night before assailing men, women and childnre with guns and machetes. Kidnapping wasn’t to their taste. They started fires, then unleashed horrific ethnic cleansing.
Every victim’s story seemed to end with the words “there are thousands more like us.”
One victim has emerged as a symbol of courage — Leah Shurabi. This Christian teenager was 14 when, in an act of heroic faith, she very publicly refused to convert to Islam despite the threats from her blood-soaked terrorist captors. It turned out we were there on the second anniversary of her abduction.
Nigeria’s Muslim president, Muhammadu Buhari, shared her Christian testimony in a statement published here on the front page of a leading newspaper while we were in the country.
“Leah remains in the hands of the terrorists,” said Buhari. “They say [it’s] because she refuses to renounce her Christian faith. We say that no person has the right to force another to change their faith against their will, and that all life is sacred.”
Buhari was right to make these pronouncements, as it’s right for Christian leaders to make similar pronouncements when the victims are Muslims.
Yet his Muslim-dominated administration must work harder to build trust between the Islamic north, the Christian south and the mixed middle of the country. Given that the terrorists wage jihad to chants of “Allahu Akbar,” it’s no surprise that victim and perpetrator alike see the conflict in religious terms.
To be sure, there are many imams who denounce Boko’s hijacking of their faith. Even so, the terrorists are succeeding at waging a type of holy war. Nigeria must take action to defend its citizens from the terrorist threats, to bring to justice the wanton murderers, arsonists, kidnappers and rapists. The alternative is a gathering terrorist storm that could destabilize the country and West Africa as a whole.
Why should America care? For starters, a failed Nigerian state would be a disaster for its people, Africa and the United States. Even if 5 percent of Nigeria’s massive, young population is drawn to support Boko Haram, which has pledged allegiance to ISIS, it would make the Islamist threats radiating from Afghanistan seem like child’s play.
That, in turn, could create a refugee crisis more acute than the one triggered by the Syrian conflict. The world could find itself managing a dangerous brew of religious (Islamist) terrorism by non-state actors, intensified by ethnic distrust, all ripe for exploitation by malign actors like the Iranian regime.
That’s why we believe the United States should appoint a special envoy for the region to work with the Nigerian government to immediately address the region’s security challenges. Meanwhile, religious leaders of all faiths must stand in solidarity with one another in defiance of the hate that terrorists aim to foment.
As one of Nigeria’s most influential Christian leaders told us, “yesterday was the best day to act.” In a separate meeting, one of the country’s most prominent imams said virtually the same. They are right. Time is running out.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rev. Johnnie Moore is the president of the Congress of Christian Leaders.