ABUJA, Nigeria — With 15-year-old Leah Sharibu still in captivity under the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram for not renouncing her Christian faith, Nigeria’s president has said efforts to save her are underway, but must be discreet.
“We are managing the matter quietly. Making noise would not help. We are collecting as much intelligence as possible, working with the Red Cross and other international organizations,” President Muhammadu Buhari said in London April 12, the Nigerian news site The Cable reports.
“There are too many fraudulent people around; we won’t deal with them,” he said, adding that this method was how the government secured the release of other girls abducted from Dapchi in February and from Chibok in 2014.
The president spoke at the Abuja House in London, the official residence of the Nigerian High Commissioner to the U.K. He was hosting Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the highest-ranking prelate in the Church of England, who promised prayers for the young woman.
Sharibu was among the 110 girls and one boy kidnapped Feb. 19 by Boko Haram raiders at a girls’ technical school in Dapchi, a small town in northeastern Nigeria. On March 22 the raiders returned 104 girls, the boy, and a different girl.
Five students were killed after the kidnapping, possibly trampled in the abductors’ overcrowded trucks by other captives or due to stress, trauma and fatigue.
Leah’s mother, Rebecca Sharibu, said that some released girls recounted her daughter’s refusal to accept Islam, The Guardian reported.
According to Rebecca, the girls said “We begged her to just recite the Islamic declaration and put the hijab on and get into the vehicle, but she said it was not her faith, so why should she say it was? If they want to kill her, they can go ahead, but she won’t say she is a Muslim.”
Sharibu’s example drew praise from Father Ralph Madu, Secretary General of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, the administrative headquarters of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria.
“Leah must be commended for her heroism and courageous act exhibited before her abductors. At no time is the beauty and essence of Christianity better manifested than in this exemplary life of faith,” he said March 28, according to the Catholic News Service of Nigeria.
“For refusing to succumb to the intimidation of Boko Haram abductors, Leah has followed the example of Jesus, the Messiah and Savior, whose passion, death and resurrection we celebrate this period of Easter,” the priest continued.
He said both Christians and Muslims have much to learn from her courage. The priest described her as “a symbol of the sufferings, persecutions, challenges and intimidations Christians face daily in Nigeria for expressing their faith especially in public.”
“This is indeed a mixed story of faith, as well as a sad commentary on how religion has often been used as a tool of division by many for their own selfish purposes,” he said.
The priest appealed to the federal government to “go the extra mile” to re-negotiate Leah’s unconditional release, without delay.
“We must remember that this is a secular country and the government has the responsibility of ensuring the safety of every Nigerian irrespective of religious, political and ethnic differences,” he said.
Nathan Sharibu, her father, reflected on her courage in captivity.
“I am feeling fantastic because she did not deny Christ as her personal savior,” he said, according to The Guardian. “I didn’t think that girl could do something like that because she is young, small and she doesn’t talk just like that. She’s a very quiet girl.”
At the same time, he said he expected the government to bring her home as they have returned other girls.
Information Minister Lai Mohammed said that the Dapchi girls were released “through back-channel efforts and with the help of some friends of the country, and that it was unconditional,” National Public Radio reported last month.
The government has faced harsh criticism, as the president had campaigned on promises to eradicate terrorism.
Boko Haram is a militant Islamist group based in northeastern Nigeria. The group launched an uprising in 2009 hoping to impose strict sharia law on the country. It has been responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, targeting security forces, politicians, Christian minorities, and moderate Muslims in Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north. In 2015, the group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.
The militants’ 2014 raid on a school in Chibok resulted in the abduction of 276 schoolgirls. Of those girls, dozens have been freed, though more than 100 are still missing. The crimes drew a global outcry, as world leaders joined the girls’ parents in saying “Bring back our girls.”
Boko Haram’s name means “Western education is forbidden.” Dapchi locals said that when the militants dropped off the abducted girls, they gathered several residents around them to warn them that the girls should not be allowed to return to school.
Pope Francis has assured Nigerians of his prayers. In February he met with a Boko Haram abduction survivor in a private audience. Nigerian Bishop Oliver Dashe Doeme has also urged the world to pray the rosary for an end to Boko Haram’s violence.