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Michelle Obama joins calls for release of Nigerian girls
Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Among the U.S. leaders speaking out for action to track down and return 276 kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria are the chairman of a Catholic bishops' committee, the director of the Africa Faith and Justice Network and first lady Michelle Obama.

In statements May 9, Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, and Dominican Father Aniedi Okure, a Nigerian native, echoed calls by Nigerian bishops for dialogue among leaders of various elements of the society and for civil reforms.

The BBC reported May 12 that a video had surfaced apparently showing about 130 girls kidnapped from the northern Nigeria school on April 14. It quoted a leader of Boko Haram, the extremist group that took the girls, offering to release them when "all imprisoned militants" are freed. The news agency reported that the Nigerian interior minister rejected the "terrorist group's" attempt to set the terms of negotiations.

Bishop Pates, who chairs the U.S. bishops' Committee on International Peace and Justice, in a letter to National Security Adviser Susan Rice condemned the raid by armed gunmen at Chibok Government Girls Secondary School in which the students were taken. A few escaped to give accounts of the events. Subsequent raids on other communities have resulted in the disappearance of more girls, reportedly at the hands of Boko Haram, an extremist group that opposes education for females, which has threatened to sell the girls.

Bishop Pates urged Rice and the United States to assist the Nigerian government in promoting national security by partnering with civil institutions including faith-based groups "to strengthen their efforts to stop the violence and build social cohesion. Their efforts will be crucial I counteracting the extremist religious views espoused by Boko Haram," he wrote.

At a rally in Washington the same day, Father Okure, director of the Washington-based Africa Faith and Justice Network, joined protesters in demanding "the safe and unconditional return of the kidnapped girls to their families so they can continue their education. Education is a human rights issue; it should never be denied to anyone. We unequivocally call on Boko Haram to release them now."

He added that Boko Haram has succeeded in such acts "mainly due to the larger political culture that plagues and destabilizes Nigeria. Politicians live above the law and feel unaccountable to no one. Therefore, we urge the Nigerian government to address the root causes of Nigeria's social, economic, and political problems."

He listed among those problems, "lack of the rule of law and a culture of impunity;" "massive embezzlement of public funds;" a "lingering feudal system in most of the northern parts of Nigeria;" and a large population of unemployed youth who are vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups.

On May 10, Michelle Obama took the usual Saturday news slot given to President Barack Obama for a national address to discuss the plight of the kidnapped girls. She said the two of them see their own daughters in the Nigerian girls.

"This unconscionable act was committed by a terrorist group determined to keep these girls from getting an education -- grown men attempting to snuff out the aspirations of young girls," she said.

"We can only imagine the anguish their parents are feeling right now," Obama said. "Many of them may have been hesitant to send their daughters off to school, fearing that harm might come their way. But they took the risk because they believed in their daughters' promise and wanted to give them every opportunity to succeed."

The BBC was among news outlets reporting that the majority of the kidnapped girls are Christians. The video the news agency cited included several girls saying they were Christian but had converted to Islam since being kidnapped.

The statement from Bishop Pates added that the Catholic church in Nigeria "has called for continuous dialogue among political, military and religious leaders to end the violence, complemented by effective police and military action that brings perpetrators of violence to justice while respecting human and civil rights."

He said he was encouraged that the U.S. government had offered various types of support in the situation to the Nigerian government. He added a request "to increase your support to the Catholic Church which has always been a voice for peace and has actively worked with the Islamic community to conduct interfaith dialogue and people to people peacebuilding."

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