WASHINGTON (BP) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken omitted Nigeria from the 2024 list of egregious religious freedom violators Jan. 4, disregarding widespread outcry from advocacy groups including the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
The State Department has only listed Nigeria, the deadliest country for Christians, as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) in 2020 . The CPC designation indicates a national government has “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” and alerts Congress to impose policies or economic measures against the countries to promote international religious freedom.
ERLC President Brent Leatherwood, among several signatories on a December letter from advocacy groups urging Congress to address religious persecution in Nigeria, called Blinken’s omission of Nigeria a failure.
“Whether this was an oversight or a mistake, this is an immense failure by the State Department,” Leatherwood told Baptist Press. “Not only did they fail to designate Nigeria as a country of particular concern, as we and many other organizations requested, but the atrocities perpetrated against Christians there did not even merit a mention in their release.”
A Christmas massacre of 200 or more Christians in the country’s middle belt and northeast region are among the most recent crimes in Nigeria, where terrorists killed 5,014 and abducted 4,726 Christians in 2022, Open Doors U.S. said in its 2023 World Watch List. Scores of others were internally displaced or abused.
“Nigeria has long been a hotbed for religious persecution. The toll has been horrifying,” Leatherwood said. “Last year, 90 percent of the Christians killed around the globe for expressing their faith were in Nigeria.
“The ongoing religious and humanitarian crisis occurring there requires immediate and direct attention by the U.S. State Department. Anything less will mean more lives lost.”
Several advocacy groups expressed disappointment at Blinken’s omission of Nigeria from the CPC list, with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) calling for a public congressional hearing on the subject.
“There is no justification as to why the State Department did not designate Nigeria or India as a Country of Particular Concern, despite its own reporting and statements,” USCIRF said Jan. 4 in a press release, attributing the quote to USCIRF Chair Abraham Cooper and Vice Chair Frederick A. Davie. “USCIRF calls on Congress to convene a public hearing on the failure of the State Department to follow our recommendations.”
In decrying the omission of India from the CPC list, USCIRF noted “in addition to perpetrating egregious religious freedom violations within its borders, the government has increased its transnational repression activities targeting religious minorities abroad and those advocating on their behalf.”
Nigeria’s government has been slow to respond to terrorist attacks, religious and community leaders there have said, with others charging the government has been complicit in such attacks. Oftentimes, the government allows murderous and destructive raids on villages to continue for hours before intervening with military forces, if at all.
Militant Fulani herdsmen, Boko Haram, Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’adati wal-Jihad (JAS) and the Islamic State West Africa (ISWAP) are major terrorist groups active there.
Most USCIRF commissioners have visited Nigeria and noted religious freedom violations there, USCIRF said.
“USCIRF rejects the State Department’s decision to omit Nigeria and India as CPCs. We met with the State Department on many occasions to sound the alarm about these countries, but not all of our recommendations have not been followed,” USCIRF leaders said. “We will not be deterred and will continue our role as a congressionally mandated watchdog to ensure the U.S. government prioritizes religious freedom as a key component of U.S. foreign policy.”
In a press statement Jan. 4, Blinken designated as CPCs Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, countries also designated as CPCs in 2023. Blinken placed Algeria, Azerbaijan, the Central African Republic (CAR), Comoros and Vietnam on its Special Watch List (SWL), indicating the countries don’t meet all criteria for a CPC, but still commit or tolerate severe religious freedom violations.
“Significant violations of religious freedom also occur in countries that are not designated,” Blinken said in a press statement. “Governments must end abuses such as attacks on members of religious minority communities and their places of worship, communal violence and lengthy imprisonment for peaceful expression, transnational repression, and calls to violence against religious communities, among other violations that occur in too many places around the world.
“The challenges to religious freedom across the globe are structural, systemic, and deeply entrenched.”
Blinken designated as Entities of Particular Concern (EPC) al-Shabab, Boko Haram, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Houthis, ISIS-Sahel, ISIS-West Africa, al-Qa’ida affiliate Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin, and the Taliban.
The CPC, SWL and EPC designations are required under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.