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With ‘hundreds’ of Christians killed in Nigeria in June, USCIRF urges Nigerian government to intervene

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WASHINGTON (BP) — Citing the murder of “hundreds” of Christians in Nigeria in June by a Boko Haram faction, U.S. religious freedom advocates urged the Nigerian government to intervene to protect religious freedom there.

The Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), a Boko Haram faction, is blamed for three June attacks in Northeast Nigeria that killed at least 121 and injured hundreds of residents of Christian villages, according to news reports. At least 20 Nigerian soldiers were also killed.

The United States Commission on international Religious Freedom (USCIRF) encouraged the Nigerian government to protect religious freedoms under attack there.

“The Nigerian government needs to be doing more to protect the freedom of religion, particularly in the northeast region,” USCIRF Vice Chair Tony Perkins, a Southern Baptist, said in a June 22 press release. “Over two years after ISWAP abducted Leah Sharibu, it is unacceptable to see the group continue to inflict such devastation on the Nigerian people.”

Sharibu is the only student still captive from a February 2018 attack on a Dapchi school. ISWAP, then known as ISIS-WA, abducted 110 girls, killing five of them. Most of the students, 104, were returned to their families, but Sharibu was retained because she refused to convert to Islam, it was widely reported.

In the June 22 statement, USCIRF Vice Chair Anurima Bhargava referenced hundreds of deaths.

“Hundreds have died in recent weeks as ISWAP continues to inflict terror and target civilians based on their beliefs,” Bhargava said. “Recent ISWAP attacks on innocent civilians are reprehensible. We condemn this deplorable violence.”

In the latest incident, ISWAP took responsibility for killing at least 40 civilians and 20 soldiers in attacks in two Borno villages June 13, Reuters News Agency reported. Hundreds were injured in crossfire between soldiers and ISWAP, sources told Reuters.

ISWAP began its attacks in a village in the Monguno area, a hub for international non-governmental organizations, armed with heavy weapons including rocket launchers. There, ISWAP killed soldiers, burned down the United Nations’ humanitarian hub, set fire to the local police station and roamed the streets for three hours, aid workers and residents told Reuters. Before the attack, fighters distributed letters warning residents not to work with the military or international aid groups.

In a concurrent attack, ISWAP rode into a Nganzai-area village on motorcycles and in trucks, killing more than 40 residents, sources told Reuters.

The attacks in Monguno and Nganzai came just days after armed fighters killed at least 81 people in a June 10 raid on Fodomo Kolomaiya village in a third area, Gubio. There, ISWAP claimed responsibility for the attack believed to have been in retaliation for a May government offensive that killed 134 ISWAP and Boko Haram fighters, the Associated Press reported June 10.

Nigeria killed 78 ISWAP and 54 Boko Haram fighters May 5 in Operation Kantana Jimlan, launched May 1 in northeast Nigeria, Al Jazeera reported May 5. Nigeria arrested 16 informants and confiscated weapons, a Nigerian defense spokesman told Al Jazeera.

In its 2020 Annual Report, USCIRF urged the U.S. State Department to designate Nigeria a “country of particular concern” and to designate Boko Haram an “entity of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act for “engaging in or tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

Nigeria has long been accused of not providing adequate defense to Christians killed in militant attacks in the country’s northeast by Boko Haram and its offshoots, and by militant Fulani herdsmen in the country’s Middle Belt.

Christian persecution watchdog Open Doors ranked Nigeria 12th in its 2019 and 2020 World Watch Lists of the 50 countries where it is most dangerous to live as a Christian. According to Open Doors, of 4,136 Christians killed worldwide in 2018, Nigeria accounted for 3,731. In 2019, 2,983 Christians were killed worldwide; Nigeria accounted for 1,350.

In terror attacks spanning two decades, international religious freedom watchdogs have accused Boko Haram of genocide for the killing at least 30,000 Christians. In the largest estimates, International Christian Concern blamed Boko Haram for as many as 70,000 deaths through 2018.