WASHINGTON (BP) – The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has joined nearly 40 other organizations in urging Secretary of State Antony Blinken to re-designate Nigeria as one of the world’s most severe violators of religious freedom.
The ERLC and other members of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable called in an Aug. 25 letter for Blinken to name Nigeria for the second consecutive year as a “country of particular concern” (CPC). The West African country’s “multiple intertwining crises” – which have included this year the murders of more than 3,400 Christians, as well as other religious adherents – “have all worsened over the last year,” according to the letter from the diverse coalition.
In December 2020, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Nigeria as a CPC. It marked the first time for Nigeria to receive the designation in the more than two decades of the list’s existence. The State Department issued its latest annual report on global religious freedom in mid-May and is required by federal law to name a list of CPCs within six months. CPC designation is reserved for governments that have committed or tolerated “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”
In the letter, the ERLC and other signers, including 10 individuals, told Blinken, “[N]ow is not the time to relent on pressuring the Nigerian government to take effective action.” CPC designation “should remain as a pressure point in diplomatic engagements with the Nigerian government.”
Southern Baptist public policy specialist Chelsea Sobolik told Baptist Press, “Conditions for people of faith have rapidly deteriorated in Nigeria, leading to a dangerous and deadly situation. For example, thousands of Nigerian Christians have been martyred for their faith.
“The United States government must seek to counter the Nigerian government, which allows terrorists and criminals to continue attacking religious minorities,” said Sobolik, the ERLC’s acting director of public policy, in written comments. Blinken, she said, should re-designate Nigeria as a CPC and “urge Nigerian leaders to protect their people.”
Kelsey Zorzi, director of global religious freedom for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) International, said in a written release, “Now is not the time for the United States to pull back its pressure on [the Nigerian regime]. Any let up by the U.S. and the international community will signal to the people of Nigeria that they have been abandoned.”
In the letter, the IRF Roundtable members said Nigeria’s government “appears to be simply unwilling to stop terrorists in the Northeast [part of the country] who continue to target and murder both Christians and Muslims who reject their extremist ideology, and who are increasingly affiliated with militants in the Northwest and Middle Belt.”
At least 3,462 Christians have been martyred thus far in 2021, the letter says, citing a recent report. That total “has nearly surpassed” the Christians murdered for their faith in all of last year, the letter said.
In addition, the letter signers cited the kidnapping of students in Christian and Muslim schools, “disproportionately targeting girls and Christian students. The state response to the attacks on schools has been to close them.” UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, estimates more than 1,120 schools are closed in Northwest Nigeria, according to the letter.
At least 950 students have been kidnapped for ransom since December 2020, according to conservative estimates, the letter said. Abductors subject kidnapped students “to sexual violence or other forms of torture, using them as suicide bombers, child soldiers, and sex slaves,” the letter said.
Kidnappers, reportedly Muslim Fulani herdsmen, returned 47 students to their parents Aug. 22 and 27, leaving 31 captive of the more than 120 abducted in July from a Baptist school in northern Nigeria, BP reported Monday (Aug. 30).
Terrorists also commonly kidnap priests and destroy church buildings and mosques, the IRF Roundtable members said.
The Islamic terrorist organizations Boko Haram and ISIS in West Africa Province (ISWAP) have carried out many of the terrorist attacks. Pompeo designated both Boko Haram and ISWAP as “entities of particular concern” in 2020.
Last year’s CPC list consisted of Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, as well as Nigeria.
In addition to the ERLC and ADF International, the organizations signing onto the letter included 21Wilberforce, the American Humanist Association, Christian Freedom International, Christian Solidarity International, Church of Scientology national affairs office, International Christian Concern, the International Committee on Nigeria, the Jubilee Campaign and Open Doors USA.
Among the individuals signing the letter were Lela Gilbert of the Family Research Council, Lauren Homer of Law and Liberty Trust International, Paul Marshall of Baylor University and Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.