Nigeria’s removal from persecution list protested

WASHINGTON (BP) – The U.S. State Department’s removal of Nigeria from its list of the world’s worst persecutors has stunned religious liberty advocates.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Wednesday (Nov. 17) his designation of the latest “countries of particular concern” (CPCs), a category reserved for the world’s most severe violators of religious freedom. His list added Russia and kept nine of the 10 countries designated in December 2020 as CPCs – Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

Blinken’s failure to maintain Nigeria as a CPC designee despite ongoing violence against Christians in particular resulted in sharp disagreement expressed by defenders of the persecuted. He also declined to include Nigeria on the Special Watch List for violators that fall short of CPC designation.

The U.S. Commission on International Freedom (USCIRF) “is especially displeased with the removal of Nigeria from its CPC designation, where it was rightfully placed last year,” said Nadine Maenza, chair of the bipartisan panel.

David Curry, president of Open Doors USA, said his organization is “deeply alarmed” by Nigeria’s absence from the CPC list. “This is not only a baffling error, [but] it’s likely in direct violation” of the 1998 law that mandates CPC designations, he said.

Sam Brownback, the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom under President Trump and now a senior fellow with Open Doors, called the action “a serious blow to religious freedom in both Nigeria and across the region. This rewards the Nigerian government for tolerating severe religious freedom violations and sends a message to extremists that their actions will continue to go unpunished.”

The announcement of the CPC list came a day after International Christian Concern (ICC) named Nigeria as the country that is the world’s worst persecutor of Christians. Since 2000, the death toll for Christians at the hands of their persecutors in the West African country has totaled from 50,000 to 70,000, ICC reported.

Boko Haram, a radical Islamic group that is among the State Department’s “entities of particular concern” (EPCs), and militant Fulani herdsmen have terrorized villages in Nigeria for years, targeting Christians in particular. The Nigerian government has failed to protect Christians and has in some cases made the violence worse, according to ICC.

In late September, herdsmen killed 38 Christians and destroyed 46 homes in Madamai village in Kaduna State, ICC reported.

Upon the release of the State Department’s annual report in May on international religious freedom, Blinken said Nigerian courts still convict and sentence people to long-term imprisonment or even death for blasphemy against Islam. 

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) commended the continuing designation of China as a CPC.

China is designated as a CPC “for good reason,” said Chelsea Sobolik, the ERLC’s director of public policy. “They have continued to perpetrate a horrific genocide against the Uyghur people, and strong moral leadership is needed from the U.S. to counter these egregious violations of human dignity and religious liberty.”

More than 1 million Uyghurs, a primarily Muslim group in northwest China, have been detained in “re-education” camps. Coerced labor and forced sterilizations and abortions also have been widely reported. The U.S. government has declared China’s treatment of the Uyghurs as genocide, and Southern Baptist messengers agreed with that designation in a resolution adopted in June.

Global religious liberty advocates applauded Blinken’s inclusion of Russia on the CPC list for the first time. USCIRF has been recommending CPC status for Russia since 2017.

Blinken said in presenting the State Department’s May report, Russian government officials “continue to harass, detain, and seize [the] property of Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as members of Muslim minority groups on the pretense of alleged extremism.”

USCIRF “welcomed” Russia’s CPC designation, USCIRF Vice Chair Nury Turkel said. “For years, USCIRF has raised the alarm regarding the Russian government’s purge of ‘non-traditional’ religions and religious freedom repression.”

The commission also expressed its disappointment in Blinken’s failure to designate as CPCs three other countries it recommended for the list: India; Syria; and Vietnam.

The Special Watch List named by the secretary consisted of Algeria, Comoros, Cuba and Nicaragua. USCIRF, however, had called for Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey and Uzbekistan also to be included.

In addition to Boko Haram, the EPCs – which are non-state actors – were al-Shabaab, the Houthis, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), ISIS-Greater Sahara, ISIS-West Africa, Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin and the Taliban.

In announcing his designations, Blinken said in a written statement the United States “will continue to press all governments to remedy shortcomings in their laws and practices, and to promote accountability for those responsible for abuses.”

USCIRF, which consists of nine members appointed by the president and congressional leaders, tracks the status of religious liberty worldwide and issues reports to Congress, the president and the State Department.

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