“If we keep quiet, we are going to go extinct,” says Catholic Bishop Chipa Wilfred Anagbe of the Diocese of Makurdi in Benue state, Nigeria.
In June, the Congressional Values Action Team caucus met with Anagbe and the Rev. Remigius Ihyula who shared their testimonies of atrocities committed against Christians in Nigeria by Islamic extremists and about the complacency of the Nigerian government.
The meeting rallied support behind House Resolution 82, introduced by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., expressing the sense of Congress that the Biden administration officially redesignate Nigeria as a “country of particular concern for grossly violating religious freedoms and appoint a special envoy for Nigeria and the Lake Chad region.”
An estimated 5,621 Christians worldwide were killed for their faith last year. Of those, 90% were Nigerian, according to a January report by Open Doors International, a nonprofit group that advocates on behalf of persecuted Christians. The report says, “Militant groups such as Boko Haram, Islamic State West Africa Province, and other Fulani militants inflict murder, physical injury, abduction and sexual violence on their victims.”
Western media commonly frames the violence in Nigeria as a “herder-farmer” conflict “propelled by climate change and resource scarcity,” despite U.S. government reports that “one of ISIS’s largest and most powerful regional branches … controls broad swaths of territory and has killed or displaced thousands of people in Nigeria and neighboring countries.”
Records show Fulani militants attacking Christian communities, burning churches, summarily killing schoolchildren, kidnapping priests for ransom, and often executing them. Twelve Nigerian state governments officially adhere to Islamic Sharia law, “contributing to discrimination and violence against Christians,” according to International Christian Concern.
The Religious Freedom Institute’s Nigerian Atrocities Documentation Project in an April report shared a survivor’s account of an attack in Zangon Kataf in Kaduna state. He “disclosed that the terrorists who attacked his community were seen in Hilux vans shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ while shooting,” the report explained. “That day, about 42 persons were killed and over 300 houses were razed. The attacks did not in any way suggest that it was a conflict between Fulani herdsmen and indigenous farmers.”
There is a problem of mislabeling the crisis, said Richard Ikiebe, a Nigerian who is president of the International Organization for Peace Building and Social Justice, at a July 19 press conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by the International Committee on Nigeria. “Stop saying that it’s a farmer-herder clash. And stop saying that it’s a poverty issue … and stop saying it’s a climate change issue.” Those issues are involved, he added, but they are not the core issue.
The State Department denies that religion plays a role in these massacres. In its “2022 Report on International Religious Freedom: Nigeria,” it stated, “While much of the violence involved predominantly Muslim herders and, depending on location, either predominantly Christian or Muslim farmers … banditry and other criminality, not animosity between particular religious groups or on the basis of religion, were the primary drivers of intercommunal violence.”
In just the past month, “37 Christians have been killed by Fulani militants and other terrorist groups in Nigeria’s Benue state,” International Christian Concern reported July 24.
Another report by Nigerian-based research and investigative rights group Intersociety said that more than 1,000 Christians had been killed in the first 100 days of 2023 alone.
Soon after becoming secretary of state in early 2021, Antony Blinken repudiated the Trump administration’s emphasis on religious freedom, declaring that “there is no hierarchy that makes some rights more important than others.”
In its first full day in office, the Biden administration canceled a modest grant to help persecuted Christians in Nigeria document atrocities against them.
In contrast, the independent and bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom explicitly recommended the U.S. government “[r]edesignate Nigeria as a ‘country of particular concern,’ or CPC, for engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA)” in its 2021 annual report, as it has every year since 2009.
Still, the U.S. State Department removed Nigeria from the “country of particular concern” list in 2021 without explanation just before Blinken traveled to Nigeria.
Smith, the New Jersey lawmaker, pressed the administration’s U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Rashad Hussain, about Nigeria’s de-designation at a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing last month. “I share your concerns. I don’t think we have much disagreement in terms of the substance of what’s happening on the ground,” Hussain said.
“The killings of people, even pregnant women and children, and the occupation of their lands to cause the cessation of all economic activities mirror the pattern of jihadi elements like Boko Haram in other parts of Nigeria,” Anagbe said in his July 18 testimony at that House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing.
In response to the atrocities, a bipartisan group of 14 members of Congress have co-sponsored House Resolution 82, which seeks to redress the administration’s cover-up.
“It is imperative that the State Department take action by adding Nigeria as a [country of particular concern] and make clear that the U.S. government condemns the continued egregious actions in Nigeria,” said Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., a co-sponsor of the resolution.
The resolution echoes the cries of Anagbe that we cannot remain silent while Nigerian civilians are being killed in large numbers for their faith.
“Nigeria is the regional anchor of West Africa … and when Nigeria is unstable, the entire region is unstable,” said Eric Patterson, the president of Religious Freedom Institute, in his testimony before the subcommittee. “We also do not want to see falling dominos of failing states, millions of destitute refugees, and a global petroleum shock. Nigeria’s friends care about Nigeria, both because it will affect the United States sooner or later, and because the citizens of Nigeria deserve justice and peace.”
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