#FREELEAH

A guest blog by the Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP. 

The Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP is Conservative Member of Parliament for Meriden and Second Church Estates Commissioner. In May 2018 she met with Rev Yunusa Nmadu, CEO of CSW Nigeria and CSW UK’s Parliamentary Officer, Alice Braybrook to discuss freedom of religion or belief in Nigeria.

Today is the 15th birthday of Leah Sharibu. But, unlike most young girls around the world, she will be spending her birthday in captivity.

On 19 February 2018, Leah was among 110 girls who were abducted from the Government Girls Science and Technical College in Dapchi, north eastern Nigeria, by the al-Barnawi faction of Boko Haram. The oldest abductees were 18 years of age; the youngest were 11.

On 21 March 2018, over a month after their capture, Boko Haram returned 105 of the girls to Dapchi, following negotiations with the government. Five had reportedly died during the arduous journey to Boko Haram’s hideout.

However, returnees confirmed that Leah Sharibu, the sole Christian among them, remained in captivity due to her refusal to convert and wear a hijab. Her friends said they begged her to feign conversion so they could all leave together.  However, a tearful Leah is reported to have informed them she could not live with herself if she did so. She also asked them to tell her mother, Rebecca Sharibu, to pray for the will of God to be done in her life. In a comment to Nigerian media her father Nathan Sharibu said: “They gave her the option of converting in order to be released but she said she will never become a Muslim. I am very sad… but I’m also jubilating too because my daughter did not denounce Christ.” 

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Rosie Costa

Rosaline (Rosie) Costa, a Bangladeshi human rights activist, was forced to leave the country in July 2016. In 2017, CSW interviewed her in New York. During the interview, Rosie discussed the reasons she had to leave Bangladesh, and shed light on issues of religious freedom in the country.

Rosie’s involvement in human rights work began in 1986, after she left the community of nuns to which she belonged for 17 years to pursue human rights work. She spent time working with women and children in the garment industry, establishing a hostel for rescued children who had been forced into madrasas (colleges for Islamic instruction), and speaking around the world about issues faced by minorities and particularly Hindus.

Forced To Flee

While Rosie had been no stranger to risk in her work, her fears for her safety grew following a number of killings of Christians in Bangladesh, perpetrated by people claiming to belong to Daesh. “I realised that I was being followed by some people, that’s when I left the country … I saw how the people were killed, so if something was to happen to me nobody would be able to rescue me from these people.”

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The Refugee Crisis: “What caused them to flee in the first place?”

On World Refugee Day, CSW explores one of the major root causes of the refugee crisis.

Syrian refugees cross from Turkey to land on a beach on the Greek island of Lesvos. Image shot 06/2015. Exact date unknown.
Syrian refugees cross from Turkey to land on a beach on the Greek island of Lesvos.

The current refugee crisis has become a major news story with much of the focus placed on asking, “Where will they go?”

A seeming backlash against the unprecedented influx into Europe in particular has led some to respond: “Anywhere but here”, and has unleashed what UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has termed  “widespread anti-migrant rhetoric”, which in turn has fostered “a climate of divisiveness, xenophobia and even… vigilante violence.”

Yet very few people have asked, “What caused them to flee in the first place, and how can we best address this?”

One key reason is the increase in violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) around the world. *Persecution and violence targeting religious communities is resulting in exceptionally high levels of population displacement, contributing to the worldwide refugee crisis.

Persecution and violence targeting religious communities is resulting in exceptionally high levels of population displacement, contributing to the worldwide refugee crisis.”

These violations often take place in societies where other human rights are being abused and in situations generally characterised by an absence of rule of law, corruption, economic disparity and authoritarian rule.

Issues of race, ethnicity, political opinion and gender usually intersect with religious persecution; consequently, religion-based asylum claims often include other grounds as well.

Religious persecution takes many forms

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Beyond Boko Haram: Child Abductions in Nigeria

In March 2016, two female minors who had been kidnapped and subject to forced conversion and marriage in Northern Nigeria were returned to their families after unprecedented public pressure. Their plight has put the spotlight on an issue that goes largely unremarked outside of northern Nigeria.

#FreeEse: The Abduction and Return of Ese Rita Oruru

Fourteen year-old Ese Rita Oruru from Bayelsa State in the south of the country, was allegedly abducted on 12 August 2015 by a man called Yunusa Dahiru, also known as “Yellow”. A regular customer at her mother’s food store, he transported Ese, then aged 13, over 800km away to Kano State in the predominantly Muslim north of the country, where she was obliged to change her religion and name, and was “married”.

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Casto’s Choice: Forced Conversion or Forced Displacement

Casto sat at the table with other Christian leaders from the Huasteca region of Mexico. In April he had been talkative and his face had been animated. Now, in October, he was quiet and rarely looked up. One of the other leaders approached me privately and expressed concern about him. During the five-hour road trip to attend the workshop, he had told the other participants that he was so depressed that he hadn’t been able to attend church in a month.

This was the same man who, seven months earlier, had energetically defended his right to practice his religious beliefs at great cost. In March, he was summoned from his fields to appear at his community assembly in the village of Chichiltepec. Casto stopped his work and went to the assembly, accompanied by his cousin Juan. There, the village delegate (leader), Jesús Domínguez Hernández, told him to sign a document obligating him to renounce his Protestant beliefs – in violation of Mexico’s constitution, which protects freedom of religion or belief, and its international obligations, including the Inter-American Covenant on Human Rights which explicitly upholds the right to maintain or change ones religious beliefs.

Casto refused and Juan stood with him. The community assembly took the two young men by force and put them in a rustic jail cell carved into the side of a hill, with the bars of the door open to the chilly and damp weather. The two men were held there, with no sanitary facilities, for 30 hours. Casto was removed periodically to see if he would sign the document. He continued to refuse.  Finally the village delegate realised their pressure tactics were not going to work, released the men,  and gave Casto eighteen hours to leave the village – declaring it to be a ‘Catholic-only village’.

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