Across Nigeria, people are praying for the safe return of Leah Sharibu.
The 15-year-old was among more than 100 schoolgirls who were abducted by a Boko Haram faction more than a month ago in the rural town of Dapchi in northeastern Nigeria. Earlier this week, Boko Haram returned nearly all of the girls, with the exception of five who died along the way to Dapchi, and Leah.
“They told her to convert to Muslim and she told them that she would not convert to Muslim, hence she’s the only Christian among them,” Leah’s father, Nathan Sharibu, told VOA.
He said he is proud of his daughter for maintaining her Christian identity in the face of the insurgents.
Sources in Dapchi told VOA that according to the returned girls, Leah was left behind. They said Boko Haram had told her to wear a hijab, but she refused.
When Boko Haram returned the Dapchi girls on Wednesday, Leah’s mother fainted when she realized her daughter was not among them.
Leah’s mother is still in shock, too traumatized to speak, and was rushed to the hospital. According to Nathan Sharibu, the family is grieving Leah, but is happy to know she is still alive.
“Leah is very quiet, she doesn’t talk much,” Sharibu said. “She likes school very much and she likes church activities very much.”
Christian groups are demanding that the Nigerian government secure Leah’s return, though some people suspect the federal government is discriminating along religious lines.
Nigeria is divided nearly 50-50 between Muslims and Christians. Religious biases have often led to deadly sectarian strife across the country, and some worry that this week’s events may deepen that divide.
“Sadly, this particular incident has basically twisted the knife of division in Nigeria a little more, said Emmanuel Ogebe, a U.S.-based Nigerian lawyer and rights activist. “The terrorists just really ruined things by keeping Leah back. That wasn’t necessary. They claim and it is often said that there is no compulsion in Islam and for that reason alone, they should have let her go, so this is not good.”
Boko Haram is divided into two competing factions, and analysts believe the one that abducted the Dapchi girls is the less violent one, led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi.
When the Dapchi girls were Wednesday morning, the militants stayed to preach to the community for about 20 minutes. They told them not to allow their daughters to return to the government school, where Christian and Muslim children study together.
There also is an Islamic school in Dapchi, which the insurgents left untouched when they kidnapped the girls in February.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is meeting with some of the returned Dapchi schoolgirls in the capital, Abuja. Through a press statement, he vowed to rescue Leah Sharibu and said he is fully aware of his duty to protect all Nigerians regardless of their religious affiliation.