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Group seeks new U.S. religious freedom post for Nigeria

FALLS CHURCH, Va. (BP) — A religious and secular coalition will urge Congress to create a U.S. coordinator for religious freedom in Nigeria as terrorism against Christians and other religious minorities intensifies in the African nation.

Termed the special coordinator for religious minorities and terrorism, the post would serve as a direct link between U.S. and Nigerian governments to address religious persecution, terrorism and the resulting economic crisis in Nigeria, a coalition representative told Baptist Press today (March 8).

The Global Coalition Working to Defeat Persecution and Violence in Nigeria, including representatives of the Baptist World Alliance (BWI), the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative (21Wilberforce) and the newly formed International Committee on Nigeria (ICON), decided to petition Congress for the new post after hosting a meeting with Nigerian governors and others Feb. 27-28 at BWI headquarters in Falls Church, Va.

The U.S. State Department currently operates an Office of International Religious Freedom, headed since Feb. 1 by U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, as well as an embassy and consulate in Nigeria.

“But there’s been no sort of special coordinator, no individual that’s taken up the cause or mantel of addressing specifically the Boko Haram and the Fulani pastoralist militia,” ICON Director Kyle Abts told BP today.

Joining the coalition at the February meeting were Adeniyi Ojutiku, a North Carolina Southern Baptist working to help his Nigerian homeland through the Lift Up Now grassroots group. Also in attendance were several governors from Nigeria’s Middle Belt, the Church of the Brethren, International Christian Concern, Doctors Without Borders and other groups.

Boko Haram terrorists and a militant group of Fulani herdsmen have reportedly strengthened in Nigeria’s Middle Belt in recent months, more than two years after Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari declared a technical defeat of Boko Haram.

Texas native Elijah Brown, BWI general secretary since Jan. 1, said Nigeria is at a critical human rights juncture that could affect the entire continent of Africa with global consequences. The longstanding dispute between Muslim Fulani herdsmen and Christian farmers can no longer be viewed simplistically, Brown told BP.

“I believe that the violence sweeping through Nigeria is no longer best understood through an analysis of farmer-herder conflict,” he said, recapping an address he made at the coalition meeting. “With thousands of individuals killed, entire communities burned to the ground, famine-inducing conditions inflicted upon entire populations, and the use of helicopters, machine guns mounted to vehicles and sophisticated weapons, this conflict has morphed into one of militant attack.

“Predominantly Christian communities currently account for over 85 percent of the victims,” Brown said. “With ongoing discrimination against religious minority communities across northern Nigeria, Boko Haram to the northeast, and Fulani militancy in the Middle Belt, Nigeria is the only country in the world to be currently facing two of the top five most lethal terrorist organizations, and Christians, including some Baptists, are caught in the crossfire.”

Within the next month, the coalition will seek a Congressional hearing and request the new post, Abts said. ICON promotes itself as a diverse “group of committed Nigerians and other nationalities joining forces, resources, and voices” to strengthen oppressed and minority groups in Nigeria.

In most recent waves of violence, Fulani herdsmen have been blamed for killing at least 170 Christians in attacks on villages and towns in Nigeria’s Middle Belt in January, according to reports. Nigeria’s military has launched a six-week offensive to combat the violence that has increased in conjunction with several new local anti-grazing laws meant to protect the farmers.

In February, Boko Haram terrorists kidnapped as many as 101 Nigerian schoolgirls who remain missing, mirroring the terrorists’ kidnapping of more than 300 schoolgirls in 2014 from a school in the Christian town of Chibok.

Buhari claimed in December 2015 he had technically defeated Boko Haram, weakening the group so much that it would only be able to carry out isolated suicide bombings.

Boko Haram, which began attacking first Christians and then others in its attempts to establish Sharia law in Nigeria, has killed an estimated 20,000 people and displaced 2 million in Nigeria and neighboring nations since 2009. The terrorists have claimed allegiance to the Islamic State and have been accused of killing Christian farmers increasingly in raids since 2017 in cooperation with or under the guise of Fulani herdsmen.