Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Nov 24, 2021 / 11:45 am (CNA).
The decision to remove Nigeria from the list of “Countries of Particular Concern” was “totally unjustified,” and a backwards step in the fight against religious persecution, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith said in a speech Nov. 23.
“Despite the fact that Fulani militants are systematically targeting and slaughtering Christian farmers in Nigeria’s Middle Belt as well as attacking non-Fulanis throughout the country with the apparent complicity or at least indifference of Nigerian authorities — a record that landed Nigeria on the CPC list last year — the State Department no longer identifies Nigeria as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), nor even places Nigeria on its Special Watch List,” Smith said.
The New Jersey Republican, the author of several bills related to religious freedom including the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, called the Biden administration’s decision “a retreat from the noble and necessary fight to protect victims of religious persecution.”
Each year, the U.S. Department of State releases a list of countries with egregious religious liberty violations. In its most recent report, released Nov. 15, Nigeria was not included.
The decision to exclude Nigeria from this list has angered religious freedom advocates.
Two days after the release of the report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released a statement saying that it was “appalled” at the State Department’s “unexplainable” decision to treat Nigeria as a country with no severe religious freedom violations.
The USCIRF, which also publishes an annual report on religious freedom, found that Nigerian citizens are at risk of violence by militant Islamists, as well as discrimination, arbitrary detentions, and capital blasphemy sentences by state-sanctioned Sharia courts.
Smith noted that the removal of Nigeria from the list of CPCs “coincided with Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Nigeria — when he should have been confronting President [Muhammadu] Buhari on his record.”
This removal, he said, is “appalling,” and could serve to worsen the situation in the country.
“The failure to hold Buhari to account—indeed to reward him by withdrawing the CPC designation—will only embolden Fulani militants,” he said. “The Nigerian government has also failed to protect Nigerians from other extremists such as Boko Haram, Ansaru and Islamic State West Africa.”
Smith, who has led multiple hearings concerning the situation in Nigeria, said he “couldn’t be more disappointed in Secretary Blinken.”
“You can’t give President Buhari a passing grade when he has utterly failed to protect religious freedom, including and especially that of Christians,” he said. “A core principle of any robust democracy is respect for human rights, including religious freedom.”