Abuja, Nigeria, May 28, 2015 / 15:36 pm
Many escapees of the terrorist group Boko Haram include women and girls who are pregnant as a result of rape, and Nigeria's Catholics have been swift to show solidarity and support for the victims.
"To the women who are victims of the criminal actions by the Boko Haramists, we extend special concern and empathy," the country's bishops said in a May 25 letter. "We appeal to them to keep faith in God Almighty who has given them the uncommon strength to face the trials and travails."
"The trauma of sexual assault and rape is enormous, and the Catholic Church in Nigeria in cooperation with all people of goodwill is ever prepared to provide every measure of support to accelerate the healing, rehabilitation and resettlement of the victims so that they can swiftly be reintegrated into the society."
The bishops noted that the Catholic Caritas Foundation of Nigeria and diocesan structures are helping support the pregnant women and girls, as are government agencies, civil society groups and faith-based organizations.
As of early May, Nigeria's military had rescued more than 600 women and girls from a Boko Haram stronghold in the Sambisa Forest, the Associated Press reports. Many of them have become residents of displacement camps.
The United Nations Population Fund said May 6 that over 200 women and girls in displacement camps in Nigeria's Borno State are pregnant, though the agency did not know how many of them are former abductees.
Nigeria's Catholic bishops voiced their prayers for the pregnant women and urged them "to take solace and draw encouragement from the comfort that God has a purpose in their motherhood role for the innocent babies they now carry in their wombs." They encouraged the women to "show maternal love for the Nigerian children they now bear."
The bishops advocated the establishment of crisis pregnancy centers to help these pregnant women and other Nigerians.
"The children rescued from terror and abortion would be presented for adoption to the many generous Nigerians willing to accept abandoned, rejected or motherless and fatherless babies into their families," they said.
The bishops lamented that some individuals and groups are proposing "mass abortions" for the pregnant women, saying this would mean "repaying violence with even more vicious violence."
They rejected the suggestion that "killing the babies conceived through rape by the terrorist is the most humane action to take." The babies are "innocent of the crimes" against their mothers and it is wrong to punish them for their fathers' sins and offenses.
"How can we accept to visit capital punishment (death sentence by abortion) on young Nigerians simply because their fathers were misguided religious and ideological bigots? God forbid!" the bishops said.
Bishop Anselm Umoren, an auxiliary of the Diocese of Abuja who chairs the Nigerian bishops' Health Committee, authored the May 25 statement on behalf of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria.
Since Boko Haram began its insurgency in 2009, over 15,000 people have been killed and 1.5 million people have fled their homes. Since 2014, the group has kidnapped more than 2,000 women and girls, including a notorious raid on a secondary school in Chibok that abducted 276 girls. Of these girls, 219 remain unaccounted for.
Some Boko Haram captives are forcibly converted to the group's strict version of Islam.
The effects of Boko Haram on the Catholic population have been evaluated in a situation report on the northeastern Nigerian Diocese of Maiduguri, where more than 5,000 Catholics there have been killed and another 100,000 displaced. Another 350 churches have been destroyed. About 7,000 Catholic women have been widowed and 10,000 children have been orphaned, according to Aid to the Church in Need's account of the report.