Leaders of Arizona's Liberian community said Sunday they're worried about stereotypes of the West African nation and potential backlash against its people in the aftermath of an 8-year-old girl's alleged rape by four boys.
The leaders spoke of their concerns to a congregation of Liberians during a Sunday church service at Africa Faith Expressions in west Phoenix. The girl's family is among its members.
Police say four boys, ages 9 to 14, lured the girl to an empty storage shed July 16 with the promise of chewing gum. Investigators say the boys then restrained the girl and took turns sexually assaulting her.
All the children are Liberian refugees.
News reports of the attack have included inaccurate descriptions that rape and those who commit it are accepted in Liberia, said Robert Sherman, president of the Liberian Association of Arizona.
He told the congregation he is committed to dispelling those reports and preventing any backlash against the community.
Two pastors who spoke during the Christian service urged community members to pray for all the children involved and their families, with one pastor telling them that Jesus is behind every storm. "Amen," members of the congregation responded.
Afterward, Sherman told The Associated Press that the rape shocked and outraged Liberians in Arizona and throughout the world.
"This thing that happened in Arizona has reverberated across the Liberian community everywhere, in the nation and overseas," he said. "Our concern is if it is not rebutted, it will have ramifications beyond Arizona."
Sherman said such backlash could include employment or housing discrimination against Liberians.
He said the public needs to understand the alleged rape was an isolated incident, and was not representative of the entire culture.
James Nyemah, the church's pastor and spokesman for the girl's family, said rape was widespread in Liberia only during its 14 years of civil war.
"To blame the whole nation for the terrible things that happened during that time is a misrepresentation of the Liberian people," Nyemah said.
Across Africa, militiamen, rebels and government armies have used rape as a weapon of war. After Liberia began its descent into civil war in 1989, rebels would gang-rape girls and take them as "wives" to service multiple commanders. Thousands of rapes went unprosecuted.
But much has changed in six years of peace there. Liberia has made efforts to combat rape under the leadership of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who has sought to dispel the stigma associated with sexual assault by publicly acknowledging that she was herself the victim of attempted rape during the country's civil war.
Still, in some parts of Africa, women often are blamed for being raped by enticing men or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Girls who are raped often are shunned by their families.
The alleged attack in Phoenix ignited an international outcry after police reported that the girl's father said he was ashamed of her. Nyemah later said it all was the result of a misunderstanding.
The girl is now in foster care.
A county grand jury on Friday indicted the 14-year-old boy on one count of kidnapping, one count of sexual assault, one count of attempted sexual conduct with a minor, and four counts of sexual conduct with a minor.
Prosecutors have charged the 14-year-old as an adult, while the other boys — ages 9, 10 and 13 — have been charged in juvenile court with sexual assault. The 10- and 13-year-olds also have been charged with kidnapping.
All four boys were arrested July 21. Their identities are being withheld because of their ages.