“It’s outrageous,” Sean Nelson of ADFI told CNA. “Rhoda was subjected to mob violence and attacks based on her peaceful expression, and now the Bauchi State government is trying to hold her responsible for the rioting of others.”
Nigeria’s laws against blasphemy have sparked criticism from human rights organizations and religious freedom advocates who say the laws authorize and encourage violence against the free expression of religious minorities.
“No one should be persecuted for their faith or face punishment for peaceful expression,” Nelson told CNA. “Rhoda reportedly did nothing but share a video on social media condemning violence based on accusations of blasphemy. And for that, she herself is now being charged with blasphemy.”
Nelson called Jatau’s arraignment an “example of how far these blasphemy laws can be stretched.” According to Nelson, the charges against Jatau demonstrate how “the government allows violent mobs to act with impunity and punishes those who speak out against the mob.”
The papal organization Aid to the Church in Need, which tracks religious freedom globally, stated in its 2022 “Persecuted and Forgotten?” report that “more than 7,600 Christians [were] killed” in Nigeria between 2020 and 2022.
Persecution of Nigerian Christians has been carried out by both the Nigerian government, as in Jatau’s case, as well as non-state actors including jihadist groups Islamic State West Africa Province and Boko Haram.
Despite the ongoing crisis, Christians’ plight in Nigeria has gone largely unnoticed by the international community, according to religious rights organizations. This month, for the second consecutive year, Nigeria was removed from the U.S. Department of State’s list of “countries of particular concern” regarding religious freedom violations.
“There is no justification for the State Department’s failure to recognize Nigeria,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in a December 2 statement in response to the State Department’s exclusion of Nigeria.
“Imprisoning individuals on charges of blasphemy is a violation of the right to freedom of religion or belief as protected under international law and the Nigerian Constitution,” USCIRF commissioner Frederick A. Davie said to CNA. “The charges against Rhoda Jatau are particularly egregious, especially given that they accuse her of intent to disturb the peace while DSS [Nigerian government security agency] and state authorities have done nothing to arrest and prosecute those who incited violence against her, leading to the public security incident in question.”
“Incidents like the detention and prosecution of Rhoda Jatau will continue unless the United States imposes consequences for these violations. The U.S. government needs to apply better strategic pressure to relevant government actors in Nigeria to better protect religious freedom and prosecute those who incite violence against religious minorities,” Davie told CNA.
Nelson pointed out that “Rhoda’s arraignment comes on the heels of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, at which the Bauchi State governor was in attendance.”
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Bala Mohammed, Bauchi’s governor, and Muhammadu Buhari, the president of Nigeria, were both in Washington, D.C., last week for the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit hosted by President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“The trial against Rhoda is in flagrant violation of international law,” Nelson stated to CNA. “The international community needs to speak out strongly on her behalf until she is released. Her trial is another clear and egregious example of why Nigeria should never have been removed from the U.S.’s Countries of Particular Concern list.”
According to ADF, Jatau’s first hearing is set for Jan. 16, 2023.
This article has been updated.