Religious freedom advocates ‘appalled’ as State Department removes Nigeria from watch list

The flag of Nigeria on a military uniform The flag of Nigeria on a military uniform. | Bumble Dee/Shutterstock.

After the U.S. State Department released its list of countries with the most egregious religious freedom violations this week, human rights advocates expressed shock that Nigeria was removed from this year’s list.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released a statement on Nov. 17 saying that it was “appalled” at the State Department’s “unexplainable” decision to treat Nigeria as a country with no severe religious freedom violations.

In its own annual religious freedom report, USCIRF found that Nigerian citizens faced violence by militant Islamists, as well as discrimination, arbitrary detentions, and capital blasphemy sentences by state-sanctioned Shariah courts.

Kidnappers in Nigeria targeted Christians for abduction and execution, at least 11 churches were attacked in the country’s Middle Belt, and the local chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria in Adamawa State was beheaded by Boko Haram fighters in 2020, according to the report.

Earlier this month, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Abuja called on Nigeria’s Catholics to pray the rosary for an end to “the irrational killings and attacks resulting in internally displaced people.”

David Curry, the CEO of Open Doors USA, said that his organization had documented thousands of killings of Nigerian Christians in the past decade.

“In no other country on earth do we see such a sustained level of outright violence directed towards a Christian community, and the situation has only deteriorated over the past 12 months. The Nigerian government has stubbornly refused to address this violence,” Curry said.

Last year, the then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Nigeria as a “Country of Particular Concern” for having engaged in or tolerated “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is making a Nov. 18-19 visit to Nigeria to meet with President Muhammadu Buhari, has yet to give a public explanation as to why the State Department removed Nigeria from this designation this year.

“Each year the Secretary of State has the responsibility to identify governments and non-state actors, who, because of their religious freedom violations, merit designation under the International Religious Freedom Act,” Blinken said in a statement on Nov. 17.

“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,” he said.

This year, the State Department has designated Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as the Countries of Particular Concern for religious freedom violations.

Russia was a new addition to this list in 2021 after religious freedom conditions in the country deteriorated in 2020.

The USCIRF has highlighted Russia’s detention of Jehovah’s Witnesses, large number of criminal blasphemy cases, and enforcement of repressive laws and policies on religion in Russian-occupied Crimea.

The State Department also placed Algeria, Comoros, Cuba, and Nicaragua on a Special Watch List for severe violations of religious freedom in 2021, and designated al-Shabab, Boko Haram, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Houthis, ISIS, ISIS-Greater Sahara, ISIS-West Africa, Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin, and the Taliban as Entities of Particular Concern.

“The challenges to religious freedom in the world today are structural, systemic, and deeply entrenched. They exist in every country,” Blinken said.

“They demand sustained global commitment from all who are unwilling to accept hatred, intolerance, and persecution as the status quo. They require the international community’s urgent attention.”

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Sam Brownback, the former U.S. religious freedom ambassador, called the removal of Nigeria from the State Department’s list of religious freedom concerns “a serious blow to religious freedom in both Nigeria and across the region.”

“Just when we should be doing everything possible to stop the relentless violence that’s targeting Christians and others, we do the opposite,” Brownback, Senior Fellow at Open Doors USA, said.

“This rewards the Nigerian government for tolerating severe religious freedom violations and sends a message to extremists that their actions will continue to go unpunished. People of faith in Nigeria will bear the fallout of this decision, and that’s unacceptable.”

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