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One Year Later, Girls Kidnapped by Boko Haram Still Missing

One year after the kidnapping of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls by terror group Boko Haram, more than 200 kidnapped children remain missing. 

The kidnapping on April 15, 2014, provoked international outrage and a viral twitter hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls. Many prominent personalities — including First Lady Michelle Obama and comedian Ellen DeGeneres — joined the global outcry, prompting Nigeria to launch a military offensive against the group. Also in the last year, the U.S. military and others have offered Nigeria assistance in finding the children. 

But few children to date have escaped from what is widely counted among the most ruthless terror groups operating in North Africa.

According to NBC

"The Chibok girls were just one group of many, many others who have been kidnapped since last year," said Biu, a woman's rights activist and professor in Maiduguri, Nigeria. "I cannot say that the #BringBackOurGirls campaign has made women and young girls in the northeast feel any safer."

While a few dozen of the Chibok girls have escaped Boko Haram captivity, more than 200 are still missing. To Biu, the international campaign to release the girls did little to bring them home — or stop countless others from being taken since.

Since then, NBC reports, Boko Haram's campaign of terror has continued "largely unabated." 

Read more here.

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Boston Marathon Bomber Guilty on All 30 Counts

Jurors have found Dzhokhar Tsarnaev guilty on all counts related to the Boston Marathon bombings. Dzhokhar carried out the attacks with his older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev on April 15, 2013, killing three people and injuring 264 others. Tamerlan died resisting police on April 19.

The jury will now move into the penalty phase of the trial, in which the primary question will be whether or not to assign Tsarnaev the death penalty. Seventeen of Tsarnaev's 30 counts are legally punishable by death. CNN reports:

The defense disputes little about what happened and instead focused on why it happened. Lead defense attorney Judy Clarke all but conceded that Tsarnaev is guilty, and is focusing instead on persuading jurors to spare him from the death penalty in the trial's next phase. ...

She asked jurors to keep their minds open to what is to come -- a case based heavily on the Tsarnaev family's troubled history and the control and influence Tamerlan Tsarnaev held over his younger brother. Tamerlan was the mastermind of the bomb plot, Clarke said. ...

But prosecutors insisted the brothers were "partners in crime," working together to punish Americans for what they perceived as crimes against Muslims.

A date for the penalty phase of the trial has not yet been set.

Read more at CNN.

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At Least 147 Killed, Hundreds Rescued in Kenyan University Attack that Targeted Christians

Somalia’s al-Shabab militants shot and killed more than 147 people, wounded dozens of others and held hundreds hostage April 2 at Garissa University College in northeastern Kenya.

Five hundred of the hostages were reportedly rescued as the day went on, but it was unclear immediately whether the standoff had ended and exactly what the death and injury toll was.

The gunmen reportedly arrived at the university at 5:30 a.m., killed the guards at the gate and began shooting indiscriminately before taking hundreds of students hostage. The Kenyan military tried to end the siege and rescued hundreds of the hostages during a shootout.

Most of the hostages are believed to be Christians.

“It is very sad that this attack is happening during the Easter festivities,” said Roman Catholic Bishop Joseph Alessandro, who is based in the town of Garissa, where the attack occurred.

“Most of the students in the college are not from here, they are not Somali, and they are not Muslims,” he added.

More than 80 percent of Kenyans are Christian. But in northeastern Kenya, nearly 90 percent are Muslim.

President Uhuru Kenyatta urged Kenyans to remain calm as the government worked to resolve the siege.

The Muslim militant group al-Shabab took responsibility for the attack, according to Agence France–Presse, and confirmed it had taken non-Muslims hostage.

“When our men arrived, they released Muslims. We are holding others hostage,” AFP quoted Ali Mohamud Rage, an al-Shabab spokesman, as saying.

The university, the only academy of higher learning in the region, opened in 2011 and has a student population of about 800.

In December, 64 Christians were killed in Mandera town, further north of Garissa, in two separate incidents. The gunmen spared Muslims but shot Christians at close range.

In September 2013, al-Shabab attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, killing 67 people and wounding 175. Those who could recite the Quran were spared.

Al-Shabab was launched in Somalia in 2006 with the aim of establishing a government led by Shariah. Recently, it spread in East Africa, establishing networks across the region.

Fredrick Nzwili is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. For more than 15 years, he has written about religion, politics, peace and conflict, development, security, environment, and wildlife. Tonny Onyulo of USA Today contributed to this report. Via RNS.

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White House Releases Blueprint for Cutting U.S. Greenhouse Gas Pollution 26-28 Percent by 2025

On Tuesday, the White House revealed President Obama’s blueprint for cutting U.S. greenhouse gas pollution by 26-28 percent before 2025. The Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) is in accordance with the United Nations formal effort to come to forge an international climate agreement in Paris in December.

In November, the United States released a historic joint agreement with China that both countries would work toward limiting greenhouse gas emissions but until this morning no further details of this agreement had been seen.

The release of INDC has generally been supported by the environmental community because the pollution cuts in the Administration’s plan can be achieved without new action from Congress. As Greenpeace representative Kyle Ash said, “By announcing its plan ahead of Paris as agreed, the U.S. has at least shown it is committed to the negotiation process and willing to push the other nearly 200 countries to deliver.”

Ash continues that there is still much room for improvement in the outline:

“We welcome the US submission as a first step, but it would not do enough to avert global catastrophe…The Obama Administration’s [plan] begins to treat the wound, but does not stop the bleeding. As the world’s second largest emitter, the US must strengthen its commitment to climate solutions before Paris to ensure an agreement that immediately spurs the necessary transition away from fossil fuels and towards 100 percent renewable energy.”

In preparation for the Paris 2015 Climate Negotiations, all countries were asked to by the United Nations to submit individual outlines for greenhouse gas reduction by April 2015. So far only the European Union, Mexico, Norway, Switzerland and now the United State have submitted their national plans to the U.N.  It is hoped that the announcement of the United States’ reduction plan will spur other countries to announce their own contributions to the U.N. negotiations. 

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Presbyterian Church (USA) Approves Same-Sex Marriage Amendment

The Presbyterian Church (USA) approved an amendment to include same-sex relationships in its constitutional definition of marriage on March 17. A majority of the denomination’s 171 presbyteries have now voted to accept the new wording, which replaces “between a woman and a man” with “between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.”

Although 71 percent of the leaders in the General Assembly, the governing body of the PCUSA, voted to approve same-sex marriage in June, the denomination was waiting for a majority of its local presbyteries to accept the change. That number, 86, was reached on March 17.

Huffington Post reports :

“Today we are rejoicing!" said the Rev. Robin White, co-moderator of the LGBT advocacy group More Light Presbyterians. "So many families headed by LGBTQ couples have been waiting for decades to enter this space created for their families within their church communities.”

More Presbyteries will continue to hand in their decisions until June, when the amendment is scheduled to go into effect.

Watch an official video of the announcement below.

Read more at Huffington Post.

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Two Police Officers Shot in Ferguson

Early Thursday morning, just hours after the resignation of Ferguson police Chief Thomas Jackson, two officers were shot as they stood guard amid protests outside the police department in Ferguson, Mo. One officer, a 41-year old from the St. Louis County Police Department, was struck in the shoulder. The other, a 32-year old from nearby Webster Groves Police Department, was hit in the face. Both officers were reported to be in serious, but non-life threatening condition.

As local authorities search for the unidentified shooters, protesters and police have begun to speculate about causes and responsibility. CNN reports:

"We don't advocate violence toward the police, (just as) we don't advocate violence from the police toward unarmed people," [Deray McKeeson, a local Ferguson organizer] told CNN. "We can live in a world where people are not getting killed, whether the police are killing them or people are shooting at the police."

[Another protester] expressed worries the shooting will undercut the protesters' message against discrimination and violence.

...

[St Louis County police Chief Jon] Belmar said police have been fortunate that such a shooting hasn't happened sooner.

"These police officers were standing there, and they were shot just because they were police officers," [Belmar] said.

As local authorities and protesters continue to work through this difficult situation, we ask that you lift up prayers for Ferguson.

Read more at CNN.

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Obama Vetoes Keystone XL

“This veto is conclusive proof that activism works.”

That’s what May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, said in response to Obama’s veto, which was only the third of his presidency. President Obama rejected the construction of the Keystone XL Feb. 24, angering the Republican majority in Congress and inspiring environmental activists.

“After four years of rallies, marches, sit-ins, and civil disobedience, we’re thrilled to see President Obama take an important first step by vetoing this love letter to Big Oil,” Boeve continued.

Boeve’s comments declare hope to a generation of environmental scientists and activists who have often struggled to draw serious political attention to climate change.  

Republicans in Congress, on the other hand, were deeply disappointed with Obama’s behavior. The Hill reports:

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) ripped Obama's veto, calling it a "national embarrassment."

"The president is just too close to environmental extremists to stand up for America’s workers. He’s too invested in left-fringe politics to do what presidents are called on to do, and that’s put the national interest first," Boehner said.

Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), tweeted that the attempt at a veto override "will happen no later than March the 3rd."

“Even though the president has yielded to powerful special interests, this veto doesn’t end the debate. Americans should know that the new Congress won’t stop pursuing good ideas, including this one,” McConnell said in a statement.

But it’s not only congressional Republicans who think the fight is not over. Boeve, too, is not content with Obama’s veto, which left the door open to future approval pending “proven processes for determining whether or not building and operating a cross-border pipeline serves the national interest.”

Boeve urged Obama to not be swayed by such processes.

“Now it’s time for the President to show he’s serious about his climate legacy by moving on to step two: rejecting this pipeline once and for all,” she said.

Image: Forward On Climate March in Washington, D.C., Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com

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Kayla Mueller's Words on Faith from Captivity

On Tuesday, the U.S. government confirmed that 26-year-old Kayla Mueller, a captive of ISIS since August 2013, has died.

While circumstances of her death remain unclear, details of the young woman's life and work — most recently helping refugees in Aleppo, Syria — have emerged in the last 24 hours, as family, friends, and members of her community share memories and anecdotes of her compassion and big heart for those in need.

The Washington Post reports

The Rev. Kathleen Day, who headed a campus ministry that Mueller joined at Northern Arizona University, recalled that she wrote in a letter from captivity that she tried to teach crafts to her guards, including how to make origami peace cranes.

“We just delight in that,” Day said, “that Kayla remained Kayla. She said she found freedom even in captivity.”

The Post also shared a letter written by Mueller to her family while in captivity. In it Mueller expresses her experience of faith: 

"I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. ...I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free."

Mueller's family on Tuesday referenced another letter in which Mueller had written of her faith, this time to her father in 2011. According to the family, Mueller wrote: 

"I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine. ... I will always seek God. Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering. I've known for some time what my life's work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering."

In their statement, Mueller's family said,

"We remain heartbroken, also, for the families of the other captives who did not make it home safely and who remain in our thoughts and prayers. We pray for a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Syria."

The family has reportedly requested that expressions of sympathy be made to causes that Kayla would have supported. KPHO reports that additional information will be made available in the coming week.

Read more from The Washington Post.

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Three Muslim Students Shot Dead in North Carolina

Craig Stephen Hicks, a 46-year-old white male, has been charged with three counts of first degree murder, according to a Chapel Hill Police Release. After shooting the three students in the head early Tuesday evening, Hicks turned himself in at a local police department in Pittsboro. The victims included a married couple – Deah Barakat, 23, and Yusor Mohammad, 21 – and their sister, Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19.

Photo via Washington Post

All three were currently attending or planning to attend schools in Chapel Hill. Although reports of previous of a conflict between the shooter and the victims are not confirmed, many have speculated religious bias played a significant role in the crime. The Washington Post reports:

The Council on American Islamic Relations issued a statement on the killings later Wednesday morning, calling for the Chapel Hill Police Department to address the speculation about Hicks’ motive.

“Based on the brutal nature of this crime, the past anti-religion statements of the alleged perpetrator, the religious attire of two of the victims, and the rising anti-Muslim rhetoric in American society, we urge state and federal law enforcement authorities to quickly address speculation of a possible bias motive in this case,” said CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad …

Hicks, the alleged shooter, frequently shared links about atheism on what appears to be his Facebook page. One such post reads: “People say nothing can solve the Middle East problem, not mediation, not arms, not financial aid. I say there is something. Atheism.”

Many have taken to Twitter with the trending hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter to show their support for other Muslims and to fill in a perceived lack of media coverage.

Please join us in prayer with and for our Muslim neighbors.

Read more at The Washington Post.

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The NFL’s Chilling New Anti-Domestic Violence Ad Will Make You Stop and Listen

After the high-profile domestic violence cases of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, the NFL is speaking out with a new Super Bowl Ad. The commercial features a woman pretending to order a pizza in a call to a 911 operator as the camera rolls over shots of a disheveled home. The operator eventually comes to understand that the woman is trying to ask for help without alerting her abuser.

The NFL created the ad in partnership with No More, an umbrella organization that connects groups working to end domestic violence and sexual assault.

The Washington Post reports:

The spot stems from the league’s botched response to the Ray Rice elevator incident last fall and from the glacial pace at which it became concerned about the issue. The NFL initially suspended Rice, then a running back with the Baltimore Ravens, for two games, which caused an uproar. Only after video of him knocking out his then-fiancee in an elevator surfaced did the NFL reconsider. Rice was cut by the team and suspended indefinitely; although his suspension was overturned, he has not returned to the league.

No More aired spots all last fall that featured celebrities and sports stars struggling to talk about domestic violence and the league has committed 60 seconds, worth $4.5 million, to the Super Bowl XLIX ad.

This announcement also comes soon after Sports Illustrated agreed to run an edgy anti-domestic violence ad they initially rejected. Created by UltraViolet, this ad depicts a young woman being tackled by a uniformed football player and ends showing the hashgtag “#GOODELLMUSTGO.” Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, has come under serious criticism for his perceived negligence regarding issues of domestic violence.

Watch the No More ad below. Trigger Warning: Domestic Violence, Trauma

Read more at the Washington Post.

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