VATICAN CITY — Rebecca Bitrus, who was a prisoner with Boko Haram for two years, is a stark reminder that behind all the rhetoric about promoting peace and helping persecuted Christians, there are real people who have suffered unimaginable atrocities.
In Bitrus’ case, these atrocities include losing her unborn child as a result of her captivity; watching her 3-year-old son be killed because she refused to convert to Islam; and being raped and forced into a marriage with a Boko Haram fighter.
Stories such as this are commonplace in Nigeria, where Boko Haram militants, since 2002, have killed tens of thousands of Christians and Muslims who don’t share their extremist ideas.
Based in northern Nigeria and active in Chad, Niger and Cameroon, Boko Haram has been responsible for multiple deadly attacks on villages, schools and churches, often using children in suicide-bombing missions, as parts of territory controlled by the group has come under attack by local forces seeking to reclaim the area. In 2015, they pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
Yet despite all of the suffering Bitrus was forced to endure at the hands of her captors, she has also learned to forgive, pointing to the mercy of Christ as a model.
Speaking to EWTN Feb. 23, Bitrus said she was abducted by Boko Haram in August 2014, when late one evening the militants invaded the small town where she and her husband lived with their two small children, Zachariah and Joshua. At the time, Zachariah was 5, and Joshua was 3.
Bitrus tried to flee, but she and her sons were abducted by Boko Haram and taken to the group’s camp in the forest.
Forced to take the name “Miriam,” she said that she was immediately put to work in a labor camp. She said she had been pregnant with her third child at the time of her abduction, but lost the baby due to the strains of her captivity.
After arriving in the camp, she said the fighters wanted her to convert to Islam. Having been raised a devout Catholic, Bitrus refused. As a result, she said the militants grabbed her youngest son, Joshua, and threw him into a river.
“I have lost him,” she said, explaining that, after the incident, she went through the motions and pretended to accept the Muslim faith, “but never did.”
Each time they were forced to recite the Muslim prayers, Bitrus said she would instead pray the Rosary, asking God to free her “from the hands of this wicked people.”
“I was never convinced about Islam. I kept my trust in the Lord, and I was praying the Rosary with my fingers,” she said. “I am convinced that the prayer of the Rosary saved me from captivity.”
Bitrus said that, at one point, she was forced into a marriage with a Boko Haram fighter and — like many of the other female prisoners — subjected to repeated rape. She eventually became pregnant and gave birth to a child on Christmas Day, whom she named Christopher, in honor of Christ.
After two years in captivity, Bitrus and her two living sons were able to escape when the militants fled as Nigerian troops closed in on the encampment. Amid the chaos, a group of prisoners fled into the forest, where they spent nearly a month with almost no food or water, she recounted, adding that mosquitoes constantly attacked them, and she developed severe rashes that have left scars on her body.
With the help of a local community, they were eventually pointed in the direction of the Nigerian army. The troops initially didn’t believe that Bitrus was Christian and thought she was a member of Boko Haram. However, after reciting several prayers, including the Hail Mary and the Glory Be, they believed her and sent her to a nearby hospital for treatment.
Afterward being discharged, she was sent back to her hometown of Maiduguri, where she was reunited with her husband. For the two years prior, they had each believed that the other had been killed.
When she first escaped, Bitrus said she struggled to accept her youngest child, who was 6 months old at the time, because he reminded her of the atrocities she had suffered. However, the local bishop, Oliver Dashe Doeme, talked to her and encouraged her to both “accept and love” the child, saying he could grow up to be “an important person in life, a person who could help me.”
She voiced gratitude to Bishop Doeme, saying that he “cared for my needs, and I am grateful for that.”
Although it was not easy, Bitrus said she was eventually able to forgive Boko Haram for everything she endured.
“I am convinced about Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness,” she said, noting how Jesus himself was tortured, treated unjustly and condemned to death.
However, “even on the cross, Jesus forgave those who inflicted pain on him; he said: ‘Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,’” she reflected.
Bitrus shared her story with Pope Francis during a private Feb. 24 audience at the Vatican. Joining her were Ashiq Masih and Eisham Ashiq, the husband and daughter, respectively, of Asia Bibi, who has been on death row in Pakistan since 2010 on charges of blasphemy.
The meeting was organized by Aid to the Church in Need, a papal foundation dedicated to supporting persecuted Christians. On Saturday, the organization hosted an event in which Rome’s ancient Colosseum was illuminated red in order to raise awareness of anti-Christian persecution throughout the world and commemorate the modern martyrs who have died for their faith.
Tonight the colosseum in #Rome is illuminated red in honor of persecuted Christians throughout the world #ColosseoRosso @acn_int @dibanezgut pic.twitter.com/9QlK0pQtaB — Elise Harris (@eharris_it) February 24, 2018
In comments to EWTN Feb. 23, Ashiq Masih said that although his wife is still in prison, she is doing well and is “a symbol of faith.”
“We hope she is going to freed one day, by the grace of God,” he said, explaining that the ordeal has been difficult for the family to endure, because “we are missing her and she misses us.”
Bibi's daughter, Eisham Ashiq, told EWTN that she wanted Pope Francis and all of Europe to pray that her mother would soon be released.