More than two dozen leading human rights, religious freedom, and Christian advocacy groups are pressing Congress to take more action to persuade the Biden administration to reverse course and re-designate Nigeria to its blacklist of worst offenders when it comes to allowing citizens to practice their faith of choice.
The move is taking place as the State Department is expected to release its annual list of “Countries of Particular Concern,” those nations where religious freedom is severely limited or religious groups face persecution, in the coming days.
Based on the number of Christian deaths at the hands of terrorists and militant groups alone, the decision should be clear-cut, the advocates argue. More than 5,000 Nigerian Christians are reported to have been killed for their faith in 2022, according to a report by Open Doors, a religious freedom watchdog group.
Leaders of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF, a government-created independent body that monitors religious persecution around the world, met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this week in a meeting in which the organization’s commissioners pressed Blinken to place Nigeria back on the official U.S. blacklist.
Blinken removed Nigeria from the list in 2021, reversing a decision by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in December 2020 to designate the West African nation as a CPC.
Earlier this year, New Jersey GOP Rep. Chris Smith introduced legislation calling on the Biden administration to designate Nigeria as a CPC and appoint a special envoy to the country and the Lake Chad region to monitor and combat atrocities there. The measure is co-sponsored by Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat.
In a Tuesday letter to all members of Congress, more than two dozen leading religious freedom and Christian advocacy groups urged lawmakers to do more to press the administration into action to help stop the mass slaughter of innocent Christians and Muslims in Nigeria.
“We appeal to you to urgently respond to the Department of State’s failure to adequately address egregious, systematic and ongoing religious persecution in Nigeria, as required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998,” they wrote.
The signatories include David Curry, president and CEO of Global Christian Relief and a current USCIRF commissioner; former Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican and current USCIRF commissioner; former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who formerly served as the ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom in the Trump administration; Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Foundation for Human Rights & Justice, who co-chairs the annual International Religious Freedom Summit with Brownback; Nina Shea, a senior fellow at and director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute; and many other prominent voices in the faith-based liberty community.
Additionally, Wilfred Chikpa Anagbe, the Catholic bishop who heads the Makurdi Diocese in Nigeria’s Benue state in the country’s north-central region, told RealClearPolitics that he is deeply heartened by the efforts of U.S. religious freedom advocates to press Washington into action on behalf of Nigerian Christians. Benue is roughly 90% Christian and under relentless attack by Fulani Muslim militants.
“The action of these American Christians to bring our daily ordeal to the attention of their government brings great consolation to our souls,” he said. “I have had the opportunity to meet them in person, during the visits some of us bishops have made in the USA and Europe to present this reality, regularly ignored by the mainstream media.”
“We thank our Lord for them, and we will be praying for their perseverance in the combat for the salvation of innocent Nigerian Lives,” Anagbe wrote.
The advocates urge members of Congress to support and co-sponsor the Smith-Cuellar measure and cited reports chronicling the ever-expanding threat Christians face in Nigeria. The letter cites a report by Open Doors that found “a staggering 90 percent of all Christians killed for their faith are killed in Nigeria,” which the organization said was an increase from the 80% it reported in 2021.
The horrific and increasing attacks against Christians and Muslim minorities are taking place in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and its biggest economy, even though Christians make up nearly half of Nigeria’s population of 200 million. Islamic radicals, including terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, the Islamic State West Africa Province, and radicalized Fulani tribesmen, regularly attack entire Christian communities, torching churches and villages and kidnapping and killing pastors and their congregations.
Religious freedom advocates who have documented the atrocities say that most of the attacks are carried out by militants with the Fulani Muslim herder population who have been allowed to act largely with impunity. Some Muslims also have been killed by the same forces, but from October 2019 to September 2022, Christians in Nigeria were 7.6 times more likely to be killed and six times more likely to be abducted by terrorist and militia groups than Muslims, according to the Observatory for Religious Freedom in Africa, a research, training, and advocacy organization.
The letter to lawmakers notes that Catholic priests, evangelical pastors, and Methodist bishops have been “special targets by Fulani and unidentified gunmen, typically shouting ‘Allahu Akbar.’” Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic pastoral aid organization, reports that since early 2022 alone, 100 Nigerian Catholic priests have been kidnapped and not yet freed, 20 of whom were murdered, with many of the attacks occurring on church grounds.
Terror groups, such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province, have attacked and killed thousands of Christians and Muslims who reject their dictates, including forced conversions. Unknown numbers of Christian girls and women have been kidnapped into slavery. In 2014, the Obama administration tried to launch an international campaign for the safe return of more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Chibok, Borno State. Half of them remain captive, and face continued pressure to convert to Islam, while Leah Sharibu, a student abducted from her school in Dapchi, Yobe State, in 2018 during a terrorist raid, remains enslaved.
The letter notes that Nigerian media outlets also reported the kidnapping of two imams from their mosques in 2022.
Since 2009, some 17,000 churches have been burned and attacked, while many of them, such as St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Ondo State, which was attacked on Pentecost Sunday last year, were filled with worshippers.
“We are not aware of a single case that has been prosecuted,” the letter states.
Millions of Nigerians have tried to flee the violence. In Benue State, nearly 2 million farming families were forced out by Fulani militants.
“Some of them were hunted down in their places of refuge and brutally hacked to death,” the letter states. “Catholic Bishop Wilfred Anagbe of Benue’s Makurdi diocese recently shared video documentation of the aftermath of one such attack with numerous members of Congress.”
The Biden administration attributes the slaughter of Christians in Nigeria not to religious persecution but to a conflict over resources exacerbated by climate change.
USCIRF and other leading human rights organizations ardently disagree.
Last December, USCIRF, which makes recommendations to the State Department, issued a rare, sharply worded statement expressing “outrage” over the agency’s omission of Nigeria and India from the CPC blacklist, accusing Secretary of State Blinken of turning “a blind eye” to the countries’ serious religious freedom violations.
“There is no justification for the State Department’s failure to recognize Nigeria or India as egregious violators of religious freedom, as they clearly meet the standards for designation as CPCs,” the commission wrote.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, who chairs USCIRF, has described the escalation of the violence against Christians in Nigeria in recent years as a “slow-motion genocide.”
A State Department spokesperson told RCP that the CPC designations are pending for release in the coming weeks, although the religious freedom community expected them by Friday.
While the State Department acknowledged that Blinken last year determined that the status of religious freedom in Nigeria did not meet the threshold for designation as a CPC or inclusion in the agency’s Special Watch List, the spokesperson said the U.S. “remains concerned over reports of religious freedom abuses in Nigeria, which are extensively documented in the annual International Religious Freedom reports.”
“Our concerns include intercommunal conflicts that can involve targeting individuals or communities based on religious identity, and the effect of broader criminality and violence against members of religious communities,” said the spokesperson.
“We also remain concerned by the continued enforcement of federal and state insult to religious and blasphemy laws against individuals expressing their beliefs or opinions about religion,” he said. “The U.S. opposes blasphemy laws and others that criminalize peaceful expression.”
Last year, after the State Department decided not to designate Nigeria as a CPC, Rep. Smith, who chairs the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on global health, global human rights, and international organizations, didn’t mince words. He pressed Rashad Hussain, Biden’s ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, for an explanation.
“Why was Nigeria taken off the lists just before Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Abuja?” Smith asked Hussain.
“I am concerned that the U.S. State Department is not using all the tools provided to hold guilty parties accountable,” he added.
Hussain appeared to agree with both Smith and Cooper on the countries in question but said his office is just beginning work on its annual report, which provides detailed information about every country’s religious freedom record. The report is expected in the coming weeks.
“I share your concerns,” Hussain told Smith. “I don’t think we have much disagreement in terms of the substance of what’s happening on the ground.”
Hussain also noted that he and other people in his office have engaged directly with all of the top officials in Nigeria and that he met with former Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, a military leader who was elected in 2015 on a platform of increasing security and curbing corruption.
Many Nigerians say these issues worsened under Buhari’s watch. Earlier this year, Nigeria elected Bola Tinubu, a former governor of Lagos State who fought as a pro-democracy activist in the 1990s, but the election has been deeply disputed.
“I want to be clear that the CPC designation is one of the tools that we have, but there is a myriad of tools that we’re using to address the situation,” Hussain added. “And we will continue to do so because we continue to be concerned about the religious freedom conditions of all of these countries.”
The Nigerian government has done very little to put an end to the slayings. In fact, authorities engage directly in religious persecution by enforcing Islamic blasphemy laws, used in the recent prosecutions of Sufi musician Yahaya Sharif-Aminu and two Muslim clerics, resulting in death sentences.
“[The International Religious Freedom Act] requires frank assessments in the face of such grave religious violations,” the group wrote. “The Secretary of State should acknowledge that Nigeria has ‘engaged and tolerated’ severe religious freedom violations, the statutory criteria warranting CPC designation,” the advocates argued in their letter to Congress. “This is particularly important since the United States is a major partner of Nigeria, having given it over $1 billion in foreign aid in 2022 alone.”
Other prominent religious liberty advocates who signed the letter to Congress include: Kristen Waggoner, president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom; Tony Perkins, chairman of the Family Research Council; Leonard Leo, president of the Federalist Society and former USCIRF chair; George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center; F. Brent Leatherwood, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Southern Baptist Convention; Mary Ann Glendon, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See; Eric Patterson, president of the Religious Freedom Institute; and Randel Everett, president of 21Wilberforce.
This story has been updated to include the State Department’s response.