Only one country was added this year to the US government’s official list of the world’s worst persecutors of religion: Nigeria.
The West African nation – Africa’s most populous and divided roughly evenly between Christians and Muslims – has been plagued for years by rising sectarian tensions and the Islamist terror group Boko Haram, which most recently was blamed for a massacre of scores of farmers in Borno State.
US has monitored these persecutions closely and has just recently added Nigeria alone to the US government’s official list of the most christian persecuted nation.
Nigeria joins Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan on the US Department of State’s Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list, which names and shames governments which have “engaged in or tolerated ‘systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious violations of religious freedom.’” Those nine nations were also on the 2018 and 2019 CPC lists.
“Today, the United States, a nation founded by those fleeing religious persecution once again took action to defend those who simply want to exercise this essential freedom,” stated Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“… And yet our work is far from complete.”
Last year, Nigeria was added to the State Department’s Special Watch List (SWL), a secondary tier below the CPC list for governments that have “engaged in or tolerated ‘severe violations of religious freedom.’”
The 2020 watch list includes Comoros, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Russia, as it did in 2019. Cuba and Nicaragua were added to the list that year, while Russia was added in 2018.
The elevating of Nigeria to the highest level of concern was praised by religious freedom advocates.
“I am sad it came to this but it’s time for Nigeria to change its behaviour; it must protect its citizens,” tweeted Johnnie Moore, a member of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) who visited Nigeria last year and wrote a book on his findings. “Nigeria now has the unfortunate distinction of being the first democracy ever added to the infamous list of the worst religious freedom violators in the world.”
USCIRF has advised the State Department to add Nigeria to the CPC list since 2009.
“We especially welcome the increased level of accountability that will result,” Trent Martin, a Wilberforce21 fellow, told CT.
“Throughout the country, the people of Nigeria face a rising tide of violence that has left places of worship burned to the ground, families torn apart, and girls still held captive by terrorists,” he said. “We will continue to speak up for these people and encourage the American government to use this designation as a means to advocate for needed action in Nigeria.”
The State Department also shared two “positive developments” on international religious freedom.
Sudan and Uzbekistan have been removed from its Special Watch List “based on significant, concrete progress undertaken by their respective governments over the past year,” stated Pompeo. “Their courageous reforms of their laws and practices stand as models for other nations to follow.”
Both had been listed as CPCs as recently as 2019 and 2018, respectively. USCIRF recommended earlier this year that both nations remain on the watch list; however, vice chair Tony Perkins stated today that its commissioners find it “undeniable the historic progress that has been made in these two countries” and “hope that their progress encourages positive change in other places.” [CT has reported on the religious freedom progress in both Sudan and Uzbekistan.]
“Their delisting is good news for religious freedom,” Knox Thames, former special advisor for religious minorities at the State Department, told CT.
“Both countries have undertaken real reforms that have improved the situation on the ground for religious minorities, as well as the country as a whole,” said Thames, currently a senior fellow with the Institute for Global Engagement which has long focused on Uzbekistan. “In both, we have seen oppressive laws and policies changed, and people freed from prison. Churches are freer to meet than at any time in recent memory.”
Wilberforce21 also praised the removals. “Years of courageous leadership in those countries coupled with international engagement with civil society, religious freedom roundtables, and other governments has fuelled promising progress for religious freedom in both nations,” said Martin.
However, Thames also criticized the lack of one addition: India.
“The State Department’s failure to add India to the Special Watch List was disappointing and a glaring omission,” he said. “The trend lines continue to point downward, with anti-conversion laws and attacks on churches of growing concern to India’s large Christian community.
“Other minorities are targeted, as government policies could force millions of Indian Muslims into statelessness, Muslims are lynched for selling beef, and India’s largest state Uttar Pradesh recently established criminal penalties for interfaith marriages,” said Thames. “If the United States had added India to the watch list, it could have encouraged a much-needed course correction back towards India’s founding ideals of tolerance and minority rights.”
USCIRF recommended in its 2020 report that India be added to the higher CPC list, along with Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.
For the secondary watch list, USCIRF recommended the addition of Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Central African Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, and Turkey (in addition to Cuba, Sudan, and Uzbekistan).
Also, the State Department designated “al-Shabaab, al-Qa’ida, Boko Haram, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Houthis, ISIS, ISIS-Greater Sahara, ISIS-West Africa, Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, and the Taliban” as Entities of Particular Concern (EPC), a relatively new category for non-state actors.
Two groups, “al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS-Khorasan,” were removed from the EPC list “due to the total loss of territory formerly controlled by these terrorist organizations,” stated Pompeo.
“While these two groups no longer meet the statutory criteria for designation, we will not rest until we have fully eliminated the threat of religious freedom abuses by any violent extremist and terrorist groups,” he stated.
In the most recent attack to make international headlines, suspected members of Boko Haram killed scores of rice farmers and fishermen last month as they were harvesting crops in Nigeria’s northern state of Borno, officials said. The UN humanitarian coordinator in Nigeria, Edward Kallon, later stated that 110 people had died, according to multiple media outlets.
The November 28 attack in a rice field in Garin Kwashebe came on the same day that residents were casting votes for the first time in 13 years to elect local councils, although many didn’t go to cast their ballots.
The farmers were reportedly rounded up and summarily killed by armed insurgents in retaliation for refusing to pay extortion to one militant.
Malam Zabarmari, a leader of a rice farmers association in Borno state, confirmed the massacre to The Associated Press, saying at least 40 people were killed.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari expressed grief over the killings.
“I condemn the killing of our hardworking farmers by terrorists in Borno State. The entire country is hurt by these senseless killings. My thoughts are with their families in this time of grief,” he said.
Buhari said the government had given the armed forces everything needed “to take all necessary steps to protect the country’s population and its territory.”
A member of the House of Representatives, Ahmed Satomi, who represents the Jere Federal constituency of Borno, said at least 44 burials were taking place Sunday.
“Farmers and fishermen were killed in cold blood. Over 60 farmers were affected, but we only have so far received 44 corpses from the farms,” the lawmaker said.
Boko Haram and a breakaway faction, the Islamic State West Africa Province, are both active in the region. Boko Haram’s more than decade-long insurgency has left thousands dead and displaced tens of thousands. Officials say Boko Haram members often force villagers to pay illegal taxes by taking their livestock or crops but some villagers have begun to resist the extortion.
Satomi said the farmers in Garin Kwashebe were attacked because they had disarmed and arrested a Boko Haram gunman on Friday who had been tormenting them.
“A lone gunman, who was a member of Boko Haram came to harass the farmers by ordering them to give him money and also cook for him. While he was waiting for the food to be cooked, the farmers seized the moment he stepped into the toilet to snatch his rifle and tied him up,” he said.
“They later handed him over to the security. But sadly, the security forces did not protect the courageous farmers. And in reprisal for daring them, the Boko Haram mobilised and came to attack them on their farms.”
Borno state has been the lair for these terrorists for the better part of two decades.