News 07 Mar 2023

Religious Freedom: Biden pressured to designate Nigeria a “country of particular concern”

Fate of Nigeria’s Christians tops agenda of International Religious Freedom summit.

A bi-partisan resolution calling the Biden Administration to task for failing to protect Nigeria’s Christians took the spotlight at the third annual International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit in Washington, D.C. from January 31 to February 1, only weeks before the presidential election in Nigeria. On March 1 the All Progressives Congress Party was officially announced as the winner of the election, although the results are being challenged by the opposition parties. 

The bill was announced by Representative French Hill, a Republican from Arizona, during a meeting hosted by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) on January 31, on the margins of the Summit. Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey and Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar, from Texas, co-sponsored the bill, which calls on President Biden to re-designate Nigeria a Country of Particular Concern because of unchecked violence which in 2022 alone killed 5,014 Christians, nearly 90 percent of all Christians murdered for their faith worldwide, according to figures cited by Rep. Smith’s office, which ACN has not been able to verify independently. Speaking via videoconference, Bishop Jude Arogundade, of Ondo, Nigeria, welcomed this development, reminding the participants that Nigeria, because of its economic and demographic weight, “is the anchor of Africa. And if Nigeria falls, the whole of Africa falls.”

Nigeria is also said to have accounted for 90 percent of all kidnappings of Christians around the world in 2022, according to the same congressman. The perpetrators include Islamist extremists like Boko Haram, the Islamic State in West Africa, armed Fulani militants and ordinary bandits.

The resolution, which details many violent Christian deaths, demands that the US immediately appoint “a person of recognized distinction in the fields of religious freedom and human rights as ‘Special Envoy for Nigeria and the Lake Chad Region.’” The model is the work of former US Ambassador to the UN, John Danforth, who was appointed Special Envoy to Sudan in 2001 and is credited with halting the Sudanese government’s bloody campaign against the Nuba people.

ACN representatives participated in six panels and side events during the two-day summit, underlining salient trends that curtail religious freedom in the world. ACN speakers also highlighted how oppression affects particularly women and girls. At a plenary session on February 1, Edward Clancy, director of outreach for Aid to the Church in Need-USA (ACNUSA), praised the resolution on Nigeria as the result of fruitful collaboration between organizations on the ground and the federal government. Organizations with a presence on the ground – witnessing the suffering of Christians and tending to the victims – are “feeding information to government leaders,” Clancy said. “We tell the stories of survivors and those under threat,” prompting governments to act on behalf of an otherwise voiceless population. 

One such story, said Clancy, is that of Maryamu Joseph from Borno State, who spent nine years as a prisoner of Boko Haram, including a whole year in a cage because she refused to convert to Islam and marry one of her captors.

The plight of women and girls belonging to religious minorities in countries like Pakistan, Nigeria and Egypt – which tends to attract little attention from government officials, with victims often facing hostile judges – is also a concerning trend, with thousands being abducted and turned into sexual slaves each year. Marcela Szymanski, head of EU Advocacy for ACN International and editor of the biennial ACN report “Religious Freedom in the World,” spoke of the danger of misusing the term “forced marriage” to speak about this issue. “The term combines one bad and one good word. To speak about ‘conversion’ and ‘marriage’ is a euphemism”, suggested Szymanski, “because the reality is that it is abduction and sexual enslavement under cover of religion. The abductee has no freedom to choose because she is not only a child, but is also under threat by her abductors. Locally, in countries like Pakistan where this is a common occurrence, abduction, rape and death threats are punishable crimes, but if you call them ‘marriage’ of any kind, suddenly the civil crimes are out of view, and the victim is further away from Justice,” added Szymanski.

ACN’s own reporting indicates key trends, said Szymanski. “Year after year, the maps in our reports highlight countries of concern in red. That map doesn’t change. It is a map of impunity.” The unchanging maps show the failure of governments to stem violence, the lack of access of victims to the justice system to officially register the attacks, and the failure of the international community to apply real pressure on the leaders of nations persecuting others for their religion or allowing non-state actors to do so. She added that over the last decade more governments perpetrate the persecution of their own Christian citizens. 

Marcela Szymanski also recalled that in meetings with European politicians in October 2022, Bishop Wilfred Anagbe of Makurdi, in Nigeria’s Middle Belt of Nigeria, said that his country “might be well on its way to becoming the Islamic Republic of Nigeria.” This, said Szymanski, “is one very notorious case where Christians comprise half the population of Nigeria, 100 million people. Numerically they are not a minority but in many cases they are subjected to bloody persecution, because they are murdered and terrorized out of their lands by armed Islamist militants, and they become destitute overnight. One can be a minority not in numbers, but in terms of economic and political influence. This is happening today in Nigeria.” 

Local sources complain that outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari, who served for two terms and was therefore barred from running for a third, failed to protect Christians, letting areas of violence fester across the territory in such way that, soon, entire swathes of land will be depleted of Christians. In Benue State, in 2022, Fulani herdsmen attacked 93 villages, killing 325 farmers, according to a report sent to ACN by the Diocese of Makurdi. 

It is hoped that the resolution on Nigeria will force the US government into action at a critical time for the country’s Christians. In a worrying break with tradition, the All Progressives Congress, outgoing President Buhari’s party, nominated two Muslims, instead of a customary presidential and vice-presidential ticket of one Muslim and one Christian, for the elections that were held on 25 February. Vice-presidential candidate Kashim Shettima has been criticized for being soft on Boko Haram when he was governor of Borno State, the home of the terrorist group.

- By Joop Koopman 

Featured Image: The 3rd Annual International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit in Washington, D.C. 2023. 

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