For the second year in a row Nigeria has been left off of the U.S. State Department’s list of countries that engage in or tolerate the world’s worst religious freedom violations, despite regular reports of kidnappings and killings of Christians, sparking outcry from members of a bipartisan government watchdog group.
For more than two decades, the U.S. president has been required to annually review the status of religious freedom in every country in the world and designate those governments and entities that perpetrate or tolerate “severe” religious freedom violations as Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs). U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced this year’s designations on Dec. 2, and although several Islamic terrorist groups active in Nigeria were listed, Nigeria itself was not.
In Nigeria as a whole, at least 60,000 Christians have been killed, many by their Muslim countrymen, over the past two decades. An estimated 3,462 Christians were killed in Nigeria in the first 200 days of 2021, or 17 per day, according to a study.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in a statement that its leaders were “outraged” by Nigeria’s exclusion from the list as well as the exclusion of India, where reports of Hindu nationalism and violence against Christians have emerged in recent years.
“There is no justification for the State Department’s failure to recognize Nigeria or India as egregious violators of religious freedom, as they each clearly meet the legal standards for designation as CPCs. USCIRF is tremendously disappointed that the Secretary of State did not implement our recommendations and recognize the severity of the religious freedom violations that both USCIRF and the State Department have documented in those countries,” said USCIRF chair Nury Turkel.
“The State Department’s own reporting includes numerous examples of particularly severe religious freedom violations in Nigeria and India.”
Nigeria was included in the State Department’s list of CPCs in 2020 but not in the 2021 or 2022 lists, despite Christians reporting little to no improvement in their situations. USCIRF has been recommending the designation of Nigeria as a CPC since 2009.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation and the demographics overall are almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims. Nigeria’s Christians, especially in the northern part of the country, have for the past several decades been subjected to brutal property destruction, killings, and kidnappings, often at the hands of Islamic extremist groups. Some U.S. and Nigerian officials have characterized the attacks as climate-change-spurred clashes over resources and land, a claim that Christian leaders have denounced as “incorrect and far-fetched.”
Nigerian Christians have told CNA that the Muslim-controlled government has largely responded slowly, inadequately, or not at all to the problem of Christian persecution. President Muhammadu Buhari’s government, in power since 2015, has been accused by Amnesty International and other human rights groups of ineptitude, indifference, and even complicity in the surge of raids, killings, kidnappings, and rapes targeting Catholics and other Christians.
Bishop Jude Arogundade, bishop of the Diocese of Ondo in southwestern Nigeria, observed to CNA that “whenever the [U.S.] Democrats are in power they look away from the killings of Christians in Nigeria. It was very visible during Obama’s administration. We will keep up the pressure to get the world’s attention. Those who have died will not die in vain.”
Arogundade knows firsthand about the persecution that Christians are facing in Nigeria — in June, a group of armed men attacked a parish in his diocese, St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Owo, killing at least 41 people. That community is “still waiting for justice,” Arogundade told CNA.
Other Nigerian Catholic leaders such as Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah have criticized the government harshly for their “silence” despite numerous attacks on Christians.
Last summer, five Republican U.S. senators signed a letter to Blinken calling on the secretary of state to redesignate Nigeria as a Country of Particular Concern.
India is also a country whose government has been accused of inaction in the face of Christian persecution. In recent years, Christians in India have decried an apparent rise in anti-Christian violence and Hindu extremism whereby Hindu mobs — often fueled by false accusations of forced conversions or reports of the eating of beef — have attacked Christians and Muslims, destroyed churches, and disrupted religious worship services.
Among the State Department’s CPC designees for this year were Burma/Myanmar, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
The State Department also proclaimed several groups to be Entities of Particular Concern: al-Shabab, Boko Haram, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Houthis, ISIS-Greater Sahara, ISIS-West Africa, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, the Taliban, and the Wagner Group.
Douglas Burton contributed to this story.