State Department official: ‘After careful review’ Nigeria to remain off religious freedom watch list

Nigerian priest Father Isaac Achi, a Nigerian Catholic priest, was murdered in Niger State on Jan. 15, 2023. | Diocese of Minna

A U.S. State Department official sent EWTN a statement noting that “after careful review” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has decided not to put Nigeria back on a list of offenders of religious liberty.

The statement comes as human rights advocates and members of Congress are pressing the Biden administration to place Nigeria on the watch list in an effort to stop the violence and persecution of Christians in the country.

More than 5,000 Christians were killed in 2022 in Nigeria, according to religious freedom watchdog Open Doors International. The widespread violence and persecution of Christians in Nigeria have continued this year with the January murder of Father Isaac Achi, who was burned to death Jan. 17.

This led many religious rights advocates to call for the U.S. to take a strong stance in defense of Nigerian Christians by adding Nigeria to its annual list of countries that violate religious freedom, known as the Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list. 

The unnamed U.S. Department of State official Feb. 7 sent a statement in response to an inquiry from EWTN correspondent Owen Jensen regarding Nigeria’s omission from the CPC list. 

“After careful review, the Secretary [of State] has assessed that Nigeria does not meet the legal threshold for designation under the International Religious Freedom Act,” the statement read.

The State Department official said that “the United States takes all incidents of violence seriously and raises them regularly in our conversations with Nigerian officials.” 

As regards the murder of Father Achi, the statement said: “We are saddened and appalled.” 

“We do not know the motives of those responsible, but we condemn their heedless violence. We urge the Nigerian authorities to quickly bring them to justice,” read the statement from the State Department official.

“We continue to have concerns about the religious freedom situation in Nigeria, which is well documented in the annual IRF (International Religious Freedom) Report,” the official said. “We will continue to press the government to address these.” 

The statement noted that the State Department has redesignated two terrorist organizations within Nigeria, Boko Haram and ISIS-WA, as “Entities of Particular Concern for religious freedom.”

Human rights observers in Nigeria and members of the Catholic Church have argued, however, that the Nigerian government itself should be on the CPC list, in part, because it has allowed these groups to continue to persecute Christians and religious minorities. 

Bishop Jude Arogundade of the Diocese of Ondo, Nigeria, told a group gathered in Washington earlier this month that members of the ruling party have ties to terrorists. Arogundade’s diocese suffered a terrorist attack on Pentecost Sunday 2022 in which 50 Catholics attending Mass were killed at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Nigeria’s Owo state. 

Those who “are supposed to make things better, they are the ones involved in attacks here,” he told the group.

Nina Shea, an international human rights lawyer and fellow at the Hudson Institute, told the group that terrorists in Nigeria continue to act with “impunity” and are rarely held accountable for their crimes.

Rampant Christian persecution, including massacres, murders, and kidnappings, has been increasing in Nigeria in recent years, according to Aid to the Church in Need. Yet, 2022 was the second year in a row that the nation was left off the CPC list.

Nigeria’s continued exclusion from the CPC list prompted Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey; Rep. French Hill, R-Arkansas; and Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, to introduce a resolution last week to push back on the nation’s abuses. The bipartisan resolution urges the State Department to redesignate Nigeria a CPC and to appoint a special envoy to monitor and combat human rights violations in the region.

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“I look forward to asking the State Department directly about this issue when they come to testify in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee,” Hill told CNA in response to this week’s State Department email.

“The Biden administration continues to leave Nigeria off the CPC list for political gain. This resolution sends an important message to the Biden administration and the government of Nigeria that the U.S. Congress sees what is happening there and will continue to speak out against the ongoing violence and the government’s inadequate response,” Hill told CNA last week.

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