Nigeria removed from list of religious offenders

Members of the US Biparty Commission on International Religious Freedom were dismayed by the State Department’s decision last month to remove Nigeria from a list of countries with “serious violations of religious freedom.”

The Trump administration had designated Nigeria as a “country of particular concern” a year ago, indicating that it had committed or authorized particularly serious “systematic, continuous and flagrant violations of religious freedom”.

Prior to December 2020, Nigeria was on the State Department’s “special watch list” for countries that do not meet this higher threshold but nonetheless commit or tolerate other “serious violations of religious freedom.”

Earlier this year, the commission recommended that Nigeria remain on the list, arguing that conditions for religious freedom had deteriorated there.

The decision to remove Nigeria from the lists is puzzling, according to James Carr, a member of the Searcy commission.

“There is no way to say that everything is fine now in Nigeria,” said Carr, nominated by the Republicans. “I think what’s going on there is horrible.”

Commissioner Fred Davie, appointed Democrat, also questioned the decision.

“It took some of us by surprise and disappointed us,” he said. “We hope that the State Department will reassess and perhaps recognize the realities in Nigeria for what they are.”

NIGERIA NO. 9

Open Doors USA, a nonprofit group that tracks the persecution of Christianity around the world, ranked Nigeria 9th on its 2021 list of most persecuted countries, writing that “more Christians are being murdered for their faith in Canada. Nigeria than in any other country. “

The nation of 219.5 million people, Africa’s largest, is divided almost evenly between Christians and Muslims.

In parts of the country, Boko Haram has engaged in widespread terrorism, attempting to overthrow the Nigerian government and replace it with an Islamic state.

According to a report by the International Society for Civil Liberties & the Rule of Law, a nonprofit group based in Nigeria, 43,000 Christians have been killed in attacks in the past 12 years.

“That’s twice as many citizens as live in Searcy,” Carr said.

Churches have been targeted; many pastors and priests murdered.

Critics say the Nigerian government’s response has been insufficient.

Sharia law has also been adopted in some of Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim states.

Last year there was an international outcry after a 13-year-old Nigerian boy was found guilty of blasphemy by an Islamic court and sentenced to 10 years of forced labor. The sentence was eventually overturned by a higher court following appeals from the United Nations Children’s Fund, among others.

Also last year, a musician, Yahaya Sharif-Amino, was sentenced to death after an Islamic court found him guilty of blasphemy. Earlier this year, a high court overturned the verdict.

Atheists have also been targeted by anti-blasphemy laws.

Last year, the Commission joined with UN officials and other human rights activists in denouncing the arrest of Mubarak Bala, president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria. The self-proclaimed atheist has been taken into custody after being accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

The sentence was eventually overturned.

DESIGNATION DELETED by the BIDEN administration

The Biden administration withdrew the designation last month, shortly before Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Nigeria.

During a joint appearance with Blinken in the capital Abuja, Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama praised the announcement.

“We appreciate that you have recognized that Nigeria does not need to be a country of concern for religious freedom. We therefore welcome this decision by your government,” he said.

Tony Perkins, another Republican appointed to the commission and its former chairman, said the administration had not provided a clear rationale for the move.

“It’s unprecedented that we see a country [removed from the list] which showed no improvement. In fact, one could argue that conditions have worsened in Nigeria, ”he said. “That the government remove them from its list of countries where religious freedom is threatened is disturbing. “

In a written statement on Wednesday, US Representative French Hill R-Ark. Also opposed the policy change.

Since taking office in 2015, the Little Rock lawmaker has shed light on the plight of religious minorities facing persecution.

“The protection of religious freedom around the world is a pillar of United States foreign policy and I am concerned about the decision of the United States Department of State to remove Nigeria from the list of countries of particular concern as violators of religious freedom, in particular after reporting on the situation in Nigeria. Furthermore, the timing of the decision to withdraw Nigeria just days before Secretary Blinken visits the country to announce a multibillion-dollar development assistance deal is suspect, and the move is counterproductive. for the long-term growth of democratic institutions around the world, ”he said.

In an email Wednesday, a State Department spokesperson said Blinken had “determined that the state of religious freedom in Nigeria does not meet the legal threshold to justify maintaining Nigeria’s designation in as a country of particular concern “.

The secretary had also determined that “the state of religious freedom in Nigeria did not meet the legal threshold to justify the inclusion of Nigeria on the special watch list,” he added.

“We are concerned about the dynamics of religious freedom in Nigeria. The department will continue to work with the government to resolve religious freedom issues to ensure that all human rights are protected, including freedom of religion or belief, ”he said.

“The secretary takes into consideration all relevant information available during his annual review of nominations,” he said. “Religious freedom is a key foreign policy priority of the United States and plays a central role in our continued engagement with the Nigerian government.”

‘CONTERNED’ BY DECISION

In a press release, the committee said it was “appalled” by the decision.

The State Department has acknowledged that Boko Haram interferes with religious freedom, designating the terrorist organization as “an entity of particular concern.”

While expressing concern over Nigeria’s delisting, Carr and Davie welcomed the decision to add Russia to the list of countries of particular concern.

The country has escalated its persecution of members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, banning the church and jailing members who continue to meet and pray.

In addition to Russia, nine others have been identified as countries of particular concern: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

The commission recommended adding India, Vietnam and Syria to the list; the State Department refused to do so.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom was established by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Its members are appointed by the president and congressional leaders of both parties.

It describes itself as an “independent, bipartisan federal government entity established by the United States Congress to monitor, analyze and report threats to religious freedom abroad.” The commission “makes foreign policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State and Congress with the aim of deterring religious persecution and promoting freedom of religion and belief.”

James Carr, member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom

Tony Perkins, member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom

Tony Perkins, member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom

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