Rights Groups Criticize US No Longer Listing Nigeria as Violator of Religious Freedom

JOS, Nigeria—Human-rights groups around the world have reacted with dismay to the recent delisting of Nigeria as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) by the U.S. Department of State.

Ahead of his Nov. 18 visit to Nigeria, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken listed China, Myanmar, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as countries of particular concern. The secretary of state designates a country of particular concern for severe violations of religious freedom.

Also on Nov. 18 Blinken designated Algeria, Comoros, Cuba and Nicaragua among countries on the U.S. watch list for religious freedom.

Yet, among other killings, on Sept. 26 Muslim radicals are credited with massacring 38 Christians in Madamai village in Nigeria, and on Oct. 31 an entire Baptist congregation was kidnapped.

“The challenges to religious freedom in the world today are structural, systemic, and deeply entrenched,” said Blinken in a Nov. 17 statement concerning religious freedom designations. “They demand sustained global commitment from all who are unwilling to accept hatred, intolerance and persecution as the status quo,” he said.

Nigerian religious freedom advocates felt that Blinken’s statement, while not mentioning Nigeria, aptly described the country’s situation: “in far too many places around the world, we continue to see governments harass, arrest, threaten, jail, and kill individuals simply for seeking to live their lives in accordance with their beliefs.”

Blinken was interviewed by Nigeria’s Channels TV on Nov. 19 and mentioned the issue of  police abuse of protesters in Lagos in October, yet critics noted that Blinken did not mention the ongoing killings of Christians in northern Nigeria.

Nigeria was first added to the CPC list by the Donald Trump administration in 2020. Blinken’s delisting went contrary to the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which recommended that the country should be relisted.

Blinken’s failure to redesignate Nigeria is “unexplainable,” according to USCIRF Chair Nadine Maenza in a statement on Nov. 17. “USCIRF is especially displeased with the removal of Nigeria from its CPC designation, where it was rightfully placed last year, as well as the omission of India, Syria, and Vietnam.

“USCIRF is disappointed that the State Department did not adopt our recommendations in designating the countries that are the worst violators of religious freedom,” said Maenza.

“More than 40 religious organizations from across the world signed an appeal in August for the relisting of Nigeria over rising religious violations,” said Franklyne Ogbunwezeh, a senior research fellow and director for Genocide Prevention in Africa at the Christian Solidarity International (CSI).

Ogbunwezeh, also considers the action as a victory for authoritarianism. “Blinken’s visit has been a strategic win for the Buhari Government, and a very tragic day for human rights in Nigeria,” said Ogbunwezeh on Arise TV on Nov. 19.

“The fact remains that in northern Nigeria, Sharia and blasphemy laws are still being used to discriminate against Christians. Christians don’t get permission to build or renovate their churches—we know that. And the government at the state level is increasingly becoming authoritarian,” said Ogbunwezeh, who also referenced the recent jailing of Epoch Times contributor Luka Binniyat in northwest Kaduna State after he reported the killing of Christians by radicalized Muslim Fulani militants.

The violations against Christians have been confirmed by the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN)—Rev. Samson Ayokunle. “We have lost many people and places of worship to their assault, especially in the north central part of the country and the northeast,” he said, “That agenda with the killing of Christians has not stopped till today, and Nigerians are living witnesses,” Ayokunle said in a statement on Nov 19.

“ISWAP and other Islamic terrorists that surrendered or were captured were not allowed to face the wrath of the law. These are the people who said their agenda was to wipe away Christianity from Nigeria and to plant Islam as the only religion from the North down to the Atlantic Ocean in the South.

“The bandits have joined other militant Islamic groups to be ferociously attacking churches, killing worshippers and kidnapping for ransom,” said Ayokunle.

The country’s officials who have failed to compensate for losses caused by religious extremists, Ayokunle said, are compounding the pains of Christians through targeted prosecution and policies.

“For example, many states in the north are yet to reverse the policy which denies Christians the Certificate of Occupancy to build churches in their own country. Equally, some, if not many states in the north do not allow Christian students to study Christian religious studies in the public schools, because it is not made available in their curriculum.

“In a similar vein, Christian students had and are still complaining that they are denied admission to government-owned universities in the north to study courses such as law and medicine, among others, Ayokunle said. “Christian students such as Leah Sharibu in 2018 and students recently kidnapped from Bethel Baptist High School were left with the kidnappers without any purposeful rescue mission organized for them.

“The relatives and churches of the kidnapped people were forced and are being forced to pay ransom worth millions of Naira to secure their people or children! Up till now, the federal government refused to see banditry as terrorism and has therefore refused to label them as terrorists,” he said.

“At its core, the CPC designation promotes accountability between the Nigerian government and the U.S. government,” wrote Executive Director of the International Committee on Nigeria (ICON) Kyle Abts to The Epoch Times in a text. “Withdrawal of Nigeria could embolden violators of religious freedom,” he added.

“Speaking to leaders from various Fulani groups along with others from humanitarian organizations and Christian institutions, [I learned that] they are shocked that the U.S. government lifted the CPC designation,” Abts said. “They believe for them to do that now creates confusion to those fighting for religious freedom and, in fact, emboldens the violators and perpetrators of violence against religious freedom and human rights.”

“Maintaining Entity of Particular Concern (EPC) on Boko Haram and ISWAP is important, but when you remove the CPC designation, you are basically removing the government’s responsibility to protect her citizens and provide human flourishing,” Abts said.

Masara Kim

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