Survivors ask for pope’s support for Nigeria’s persecuted Christians

By Justin McLellan | Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Finally free after nine years as a captive of a Nigerian jihadist militant group, Maria Joseph, a 19-year-old Christian from Nigeria, asked Pope Francis to do “whatever is in his means” to support the country’s persecuted Christians.

Joseph and Janada Marcus, 22, are survivors of Christian-targeted persecution by Boko Haram, a terror group aligned with the Islamic State that has been active in Nigeria since 2002. Both women received psychological treatment at a trauma center operated by the Diocese of Maiduguri, Nigeria, and met with the pope at the end of his general audience March 8.

In 2013, when she was just 9 years old, Joseph was abducted by Boko Haram and taken to a camp where she was tortured and enslaved until her escape in 2022. She said that like other Christians in the camp, she was forced to convert to Islam and kept in a cage.

“It was difficult because I was without my family, then they forced me to relinquish my religion and I did not like it,” she told Catholic News Service through a translator March 7. Joseph said she was given a Muslim name and kept in a cage for an entire year after she refused to marry one of the group’s leaders.

Pope Francis blesses Janada Marcus, a survivor of Christian persecution in Nigeria, after his general audience March 8, 2023. She is accompanied to her left by Father Joseph Bature Fidelis, director of a trauma center for victims of terrorism in Nigeria, and to her right by Maria Joseph, another survivor. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

In 2019, two of her brothers were captured and brought to the camp where she was held. One of them was killed and mutilated in front of her while the other remains in captivity.

Despite her suffering, she said she was “encouraged to revive the faith” by other Christians who were brought to the camp after her.

“There were often new arrivals, those kidnapped after us, that would tell (us) about things happening outside (the camp), and listening to their stories filled us with the hope not to give up.”

Marcus and her family had to flee their homes in northern Nigeria twice due to attacks by Boko Haram.

“They burned everything, and they took us in an ambush. They didn’t give us food or a place to sleep until we became Muslim,” she told CNS. “We lost everything.”

Although Marcus was freed after that incident, in 2018 her family was again attacked while working on a farm. She said members of Boko Haram threatened to kill her father if he did not agree to let them have sex with her. He refused and was beheaded in front of Marcus.

Two years later Boko Haram abducted her and tortured her continuously in the woods for six days.

Marcus attributed her desire to remain Christian to her mother. While she was being tortured, she recalled her mother telling her that as a Christian, “our religion doesn’t tell us to force (another) person to follow us.”

She told CNS she hoped the pope would “help people like us.”

Joseph and Marcus both received treatment from a trauma treatment center built with the support of Aid to the Church in Need, a pontifical foundation dedicated to supporting persecuted Christians. The center provides counseling from lay and religious psychologists for women who have experienced trauma at the hands of Islamic terrorists as well as workshops to teach them practical life skills such as weaving, baking and shoemaking.

Father Joseph Bature Fidelis, director of the trauma center and a trained clinical psychologist, told CNS that while the center can only take in five to eight women at a time there are thousands waiting to receive their support.

“We needed to do something for people who live various forms of suffering; there’s faith, that’s okay, but then we needed some kind of psychological accompaniment,” he said. “We receive people with very difficult and challenging traumatic experiences, but for very severe cases we must refer them to a neuropsychiatric hospital.”

Christian-targeted violence in Nigeria also has been directed toward priests. In January, gunmen burned a priest to death and shot and injured another in an attack on a parish residence in Nigeria’s Paikoro region. According to ACN, four priests were murdered in Nigeria in 2022 and 28 were kidnapped.

Author: Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ news and information service.

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