After the U.S. State Department released a list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) – a designation reserved for countries whose governments either engage in or tolerate violations to freedom of religion – in mid-November, many Christian activists rebuked and questioned the decision that left Nigeria off its religious violator’s list.
This development has attracted condemnations from Christian activists and advocacy groups whose concern is that as a country of more than 200 million people, Islamist and terrorist groups have continued their attacks on Christian communities. In addition, the country is divided along religious and ethnic lines with reported violent clashes between Muslims and Christians that have claimed thousands of lives and left many displaced.
Christian leaders in the country are among those speaking up against the removal of Nigeria from the CPC list. They say that there is no religious freedom in Nigeria as Christians still face persecution.
In a statement, Rev. Samson Ayokunle, the National President of Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the apex Christian body and an umbrella group of Catholic and Protestant denominations said removing Nigeria from religious violator’s list does not make the situation different as Christians still face persecution.
“Christians had faced and are still facing persecution from Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) and the Boko Haram Islamic group till today as before. 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. That agenda with the killing of Christians has not stopped till today and Nigerians are living witnesses,” Ayokunle said. “We urge the US government to help us by allowing us to know what has changed between the time our country was put in the list of ‘countries of particular concern’ and now.”
Back in December 2019, the US government placed Nigeria on its Special Watch List (SWL) for engaging or tolerating the severe violation of religious freedom. One year after, following recommendation from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the US designated Nigeria as a country of concern after a spike in religious violence and a wave of killings in northern Nigeria. This decision made when promoting religious freedom was one of the few human rights priorities of former US President Donald Trump’s administration.
The International Christian Concern (ICC) also expressed shock that Nigeria is excluded from the CPC list. In a recent report, the Christian group identified Nigeria as one of its 2021 “Persecutors of the Year” and noted that Nigeria is the most dangerous place on earth for Christians.
In recent years, the number of defenseless Christians that have been killed has increased. For instance, a report by the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law (Intersociety) indicates that at least 3,462 Christians were murdered in Nigeria in the first 200 days of 2021. Despite this, State Department officials said Nigeria did not meet the legal threshold to be named a country violating religious freedom but designated Boko Haram – Islamic sectarian movement that has conducted attacks on religious and political groups amongst others – as an entity of particular concern.
While international observers contend the decision of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, critics argued that Blinken’s move was political, especially as he made the announcement a day before he arrived Nigeria as part of his African tour.
Markus Danbinta, Anglican Bishop of Dutse said religious-motivated crises have long flared in the country and as such, the decision that suggests Nigeria no longer tolerates violation to freedom of religion does not make sense.
“Honestly, the decision does not make sense. I see that as just politics, because if America within a space of time will say there is lack of freedom of religion in Nigeria and within a space they say they are changing their mind, then I see it as politics,” Danbinta told CWR. “There is nothing like freedom of religion in Nigeria. We are battling with the issue of religion. So for me, the decision does not make any sense.”
But Paul Iorsue, a conflict expert based in Abuja, said the development will attract foreign direct investment to Nigeria.
“With the removal of Nigeria off the list, what that means is that Nigeria can now deepen diplomatic relations with the US and several other countries in the world. It is a good decision because a lot of countries will now have confidence to do business with Nigeria,” he said. “No country will invest in another country that is tagged a terrorist state. But now, Nigeria will attract more foreign direct investment (FDI) because a lot of countries will have confidence and won’t see Nigeria as a place not good for investment.”
He added that the decision is “much more important in terms of international politics. It is also much more important in terms of diplomacy. It is also much more important in terms of foreign direct investment.”
The President of the Para-Mallam Peace Foundation, Reverend Gideon Para-Mallam, said removing Nigeria off the CPC list would encourage lawlessness in the country.
“It beats my imagination that with all that is going on in Nigeria regarding the persecution of Christians, Nigeria, which was included in the CPC list as it affects religious freedoms in December 2020, could be so hastily removed in less than one year. Interestingly, Nigeria was removed from the CPC list but Boko Haram and the Islamic State’s West Africa Province, ISWAP, were named in the entities of Particular Concern List. This clearly shows that the Department of State recognizes the significant challenge of religious freedom in Nigeria,” he said. “To me, removing Nigeria from the CPC list is a hypocritical and tacit way of encouraging the present impunity and lawlessness. I pray this will not result in more killings in Nigeria. Such hypocritical policies are anchored on what I term softball diplomacy which is akin to playing the ostrich’’.
Meanwhile, Iorsue said there are other issues such as banditry that confront Nigeria much more than religious crisis.
“As much as CAN want to criticize the decision of the US, we should be conscious of the fact that what Nigeria is facing today is not more of a religious crisis but much more of banditry, insurgency, and farmer-herder clash,” he said.
But Christian leaders insist that the removal of Nigeria from religious violators’ list will only encourage the persecution of Christians in the country. To lessen the extent to which Christians in Nigeria are being killed, Christian leaders asked the decision of the U.S. Department of State be reversed.
“The removal of Nigeria from religious violators’ list on its own is persecution on the Nigerian Christian body as it stands glaring how Christians are being killed on a daily basis, both announced and unannounced,” Joel Omon, Nigerian GOFAMINT pastor said. “It is an issue that calls for urgent attention. I support that the decision be reversed and Nigeria be put back in the religious violator’s list.”
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!