A new report from Aid to the Church in Need reveals that young Christian girls are being bought, sold, forced to convert, and forced to marry their captors. A Yazidi child like this, under the age of 9, goes for $172.
The diocese of Yola in Nigeria established an informal settlement for those victimized and displaced by Boko Haram.
Ten-year-old Sema was captured by Boko Haram and held captive for eight months, until she managed to escape one night following two older women. She saw with her own eyes men being slaughtered. She is staying with her grandmother at Sainte Therese’s informal settlement, established by the bishop of Yola, Nigeria. She feels safe here, she says. But she still has nightmares.
Ruth Jacobson is another displaced person staying at Sainte Therese’s informal settlement. Boko Haram killed her husband.
Story courtesy of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), with additional elements from CREID and the diocese of Yola, Nigeria.
Pope’s Iraq Visit Highlights Crimes against Christian Women and Girls
While traveling on the plane to visit Iraq in March, Pope Francis was presented with a copy of the letter many Iraqi Christians received demanding that they pay “jizya” to ISIS. The pope was also given a copy of an ISIS price list for Christian and Yazidi women and girls who were sold like cattle in slave markets. The prices varied on the ages of the women and girls. The highest price was for girls under the age of 9 at $172. The pope was also presented with photos of Christian houses with a large letter N (for “Nazarene”) painted on them.
When ISIS invaded and took over large sections of Iraq, they gave Christians living there a choice with three options. They could pay the jizya, a tax historically paid by Christians in Muslim-controlled lands. They could convert to Islam. Or, they could leave ISIS-controlled areas. The majority of the Christians fled in fear for their lives.
Many Christian women and girls captured by ISIS were sold into slavery alongside Yazidi women and girls. The pope’s visit drew international attention to the genocide of Iraqi Christians and the practice of kidnapping, enslavement, forced conversion, and marriage for young girls. The Christian population of Iraq has dropped from 1.5 million to around 250,000 in the past twenty years.
Spanish journalist Eva Fernandez presented the pope with a copy of a price list for Yazidi and Christian women enslaved by Daesh (ISIS). ACN provided the document.
This story first appeared in Comboni Missions Magazine winter 2021-22.
“Can you imagine what it is like being a mother and knowing these terrible things are being done to your daughter? What is perhaps even worse is realizing there is absolutely nothing you can do about it – and all because of the faith we profess.”
These are the words of a Christian mother speaking to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about the kidnapping, forced marriage and forced conversion of her daughter – a girl barely in her teens.
It is just one of many reports ACN has received firsthand. Week in, week out, cases are reported of girls and young women from Christian families forced into sexual slavery and religious conversion – often on pain of death.
A new report (Hear Her Cries: The kidnapping, forced conversion and sexual victimization of Christian women and girls) notes the growing awareness among human rights observers and organizations that this topic is increasingly urgent.
Investigating this disturbing practice is difficult, though. Civil authorities often turn a blind eye to reports of mistreatment of women and children in order to prevent interreligious tensions from erupting into violence.
Women are discouraged from speaking about their experiences. Some who have escaped or been ransomed from slavery fear reprisals from their former abductors, so they do not name their captors. In some cultures, intense social pressure prevents discussing the topic. Women who have been enslaved or sexually abused carry a stigma that casts a shadow over their families. And it is possible, even common, that the same women will be abducted yet again.
In April, ACN produced a report on “Religious Freedom in the World” which assessed the situation for faith groups in 196 countries. It concluded “Crimes against girls and women abducted, raped, and obliged to change their faith in forced conversions,” were increasing in number and scope.
Incidents of Christian women being forced to marry against their will have been reported in more than forty countries. During the pandemic, the rate of abduction and violence accelerated. According to the UN: “Since the outbreak of COVID-19, emerging data and reports from those on the front lines have shown that all types of violence against girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified.” Vulnerable women and children in lockdown with their families are at a greater risk of general abuse, especially in the Middle East and North Africa region. Christian girls and young women are particularly susceptible to attack.
According to the Christian Association of Nigeria, (a country that regularly makes headlines for mass abductions of schoolgirls) 95 percent of women and girls being held by terror groups in the region are Christian. In Pakistan, the Movement for Solidarity and Peace calculated in 2014 that 70 percent of girls and young women forcibly converted and married every year are Christians.
Across the board, there is a higher incidence rate of sexual and religious persecution of women in situations of conflict. This was evident especially during the Daesh (ISIS) military takeover of parts of Syria and Iraq, where there was “an organized system of sexual enslavement of minorities,” including the Yazidi Christians.
The Daesh example also points to perhaps the most significant longterm factor of concern regarding forced marriage and conversion of Christian girls and women, namely evidence that the perpetrators’ motive is to limit the growth, and sometimes the very survival, of that particular faith group. Forcing a woman to abandon her Christian faith not only wins a convert to the predator’s religion; it also ensures that any children born, including through forced marriage, are claimed for that new faith too.
Referring to Daesh fighters, Christian persecution expert Marta Petrosillo stated: “Forced pregnancies and conversions are… a means to secure ‘the next generation of jihadists.’” This applies to many others engaged in sexual violence and religious persecution. Religious coercion and sexual violence can also be part of an effort to trigger a mass movement of an unwanted faith community. This could be said to apply to northern Nigeria, where a spokesman for Boko Haram stated that the aim of the militant extremist group was to drive Christians into leaving en masse, before adding: “We are going to put into action new efforts to strike fear into Christians of the power of Islam by kidnapping women.”
According to Amnesty International’s Makmid Kamara, those seized by Boko Haram suffered “horrific abuses” including rape.
Although in some countries the targeting of Christian girls can be defined as genocidal in nature, in many others it is impossible to draw the same conclusion, not necessarily because the problem is less severe, but in large part because of a paucity of evidence. Indeed, in almost every instance, research carried out for the ACN report demonstrates widespread underreporting.
In Nigeria, for instance, the government documented 210 cases of conflict-related sexual violence in 2020, including rape and forced marriage, “noting that such crimes continue to be chronically underreported.” And, demonstrating the struggle to assess the scale of the problem in Pakistan, one piece of research suggests that nationwide up to 1,000 Christian and Hindu girls are forcibly married and converted every year, while other evidence gives the same figure for just the single province of Sindh.
ACN uncovered evidence of the causes for such widespread underreporting. The main reason is fear of casting shame on the victims, their families, and sometimes their community. In Nigeria, the UN highlighted underreporting “owing to stigma and harmful social norms.” Speaking from Iraq, Syriac Catholic Archbishop Nizar Nathaniel Semaan highlighted difficulties finding out what happened to minority faith women and girls who had been abducted by Daesh, adding: “What did they do? Did they get married? They won’t say anything because they are ashamed and don’t want to talk about it.”
Low reporting levels are also associated with fear of reprisal from perpetrators. This factor is a recurring theme in a significant proportion of the cases examined in the ACN study. When two 18-year-old Coptic girls went missing in Egypt in the summer of 2021, no details were released about the incident, prompting speculation that families had agreed to say nothing as the price to be paid for their return.
A third reason for underreporting is institutional resistance from police and courts in following up cases of missing girls and women. This affects the incidence rate as perpetrators know their chances of punishment are reduced if they confine their attacks to minority faith communities.
In Egypt, for example, a former gang member reportedly described how militants had funded the kidnappers’ targeting of Coptic Christian girls and young women, a process he said was aided and abetted by police officers. He alleged that the police had conspired by reporting the female Christians as missing rather than abducted.
In Pakistan, the police and courts system are frequently accused of colluding with perpetrators. Reporting on a series of abductions, forced marriages and conversions of Christian girls as young as 6, a report from the Gatestone Institute concluded that “everyone, including local police, court officials and Islamic clerics seem bent on facilitating this human rights tragedy.” And the courts and judicial system are also blamed for being biased against Christians, frequently delivering justice skewed to protecting the interests of perpetrators and preventing them being successfully prosecuted.
The essence of this problem is a clash of cultures and corresponding legal systems, with official state legislation, allegedly secular in outlook, frequently being trumped by other codes of practice, informed by religious precepts and weighted to favor the non-Christian (or minority religious) party. Central to this are tribal, cultural and religious norms, including traditional Shari‘a interpretations which protect child marriage.
In Nigeria, for example, the federal Child Rights Act bans marriage or betrothal for those under the age of 18 but critically it has not been enacted in 11 of the country’s 36 states where local state law or other legislation takes precedence.
In Pakistan, the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, as amended by the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961, imposes a minimum age of 16 for would-be brides. Calls to raise the bar to 18 were met with opposition by Islamist political parties. However, this belies the degree to which courts set aside state legislation in favor of Islamic law, often on the pretext that the bride has converted to Islam, whereby marriage is permissible after a girl’s first period. Evidence of pressure from Islamist mobs, known to pack court rooms, is also reported to have swayed justices, especially in lower courts.
Against a backdrop of widespread corruption, governments’ willingness to seek justice for victims and take preventative steps to tackle sexual violence and religious persecution of faith minorities has repeatedly been called into question by observers. While the UK government recognized that “Coptic Christian women in Egypt face difficulties additional to other women in the form of… disappearances, forced abductions and forced conversions” the Egyptian government has by contrast been described as dismissive of the problem. Regime spokespersons have claimed that the majority of cases do not relate to human rights violations and are to be seen only as involving young women eloping with someone from another religion.
There are signs, however, in countries where Christian women and girls suffer endemic sexual violence and religious persecution, that governments are starting to take steps to address the problem. In March 2021, the government in Nigeria announced specialist courts and judicial divisions to deal with acts of sexual violence, in particular those committed by extremists.
The previous November, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government in Pakistan launched an investigation into forced marriage and conversion of girls and young women, looking at reports of injustice on a “case by case” basis.
However, it is doubtful whether such initiatives will meaningfully address a problem that is so institutionalized and so deeply rooted in society. The concern is that such measures are windowdressing for the West, designed to assuage the concerns of governments anxious about the moral implications of trade and aid involving countries with a dubious record on key human rights issues. It is likely that only a more fundamental and strategic approach to tackling systemic religious and gender discrimination will deliver the changes that are needed to enable Christian and other minority faith women and girls to be freed from the threat of sexual and religious persecution.
Oxford University’s Dr. Nazila Ghanea writes:
“There is frequent invocation of religious norms as defense in order to oppose gender equality claims… [Grave] violations of the human rights of women and girls are carried out in the name of (religious) tradition. Often the state then endorses violations or neglects to act effectively on them.”
An understanding of underlying nuances is also necessary. It would be a fundamental misreading of religiously motivated sexual coercion and violence to suggest that faith is the single or even necessarily the prevailing factor involved. Rather, religion is often part of the mix of indicators denoting vulnerability, perceived as giving culprits a passport to impunity. As Director of the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID) Professor Mariz Tadros has stated, ideologically motivated sexual abuse involves “predators targeting girls and women who are vulnerable often because of economic deprivation, personal hardship, harsh family circumstances and social rejection.”
One girl interviewed for the report said, “It is very difficult being a Christian girl in our country. So often our girls are abducted and the depraved things they suffer are too awful to imagine. It is so frightening. Who is there to help us?”
We need to act for the sake of the girls, the women, persecuted for their faith and sexually targeted because of their gender. We need to champion their cause; we need to hear their cries.