Legal group joins outcry over removal of Nigeria from religious freedom watch list

The flag of Nigeria on a military uniform. / Bumble Dee/Shutterstock.

Denver Newsroom, Nov 23, 2021 / 15:14 pm (CNA).

An international legal group has joined the outcry over the U.S. State Department’s decision to remove Nigeria from this year’s watchlist of countries with the most egregious violations of religious freedom. 

“Persecution against Christians and other religious minorities around the world must end,” wrote Sean Nelson, legal counsel for global religious freedom for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) International, in a Nov. 22 statement. “For too long, governments and non-state actors have abused people of faith, including in countries like Nigeria, India, Afghanistan, and Vietnam.” 

“The United States has been a leader on International Religious Freedom for decades, and we are deeply concerned that the State Department found no need to designate these countries as Countries of Particular Concern or to add them to the Special Watch List.”

The State Department released its annual designations Nov. 15. Nigeria was included in a list of “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) in 2020, but the country was not included in the 2021 list. 

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) had been recommending the designation of Nigeria as a CPC since 2009. ADF International and dozens of other human rights organizations joined USCIRF in calling for the State Department to re-designate Nigeria as a CPC again this year. 

It remains unclear why the State Department removed Nigeria from the list. 

“Outcry over the State Department’s removal of CPC status for Nigeria’s religious freedom violations is entirely warranted,” Nelson wrote. “No explanations have been given that could justify this decision. If anything, the situation in Nigeria has grown worse over the last year.”

“Removing CPC status for Nigeria will only embolden the increasingly authoritarian government there. We call on the U.S. government to rectify this inexplicable decision, and instead continue America’s long tradition of standing up for those who are persecuted worldwide.”

In its own annual religious freedom report, USCIRF found that Nigerian citizens faced violence by militant Islamists, as well as discrimination, arbitrary detentions, and capital blasphemy sentences by state-sanctioned Shariah courts.

Kidnappers in Nigeria targeted Christians for abduction and execution, at least 11 churches were attacked in the country’s Middle Belt, and the local chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria in Adamawa State was beheaded by Boko Haram fighters in 2020, according to the report.

A recent study by a Nigerian legal group found that at least 17 Christians were killed every day in the first half of 2021 alone.

In its Nov. 22 statement, ADF applauded the State Department’s inclusion of Russia as a CPC, and addition of Algeria to a “Special Watch List” (SWL). 

“We urge the State Department to prioritize advocacy in every country facing grave religious freedom conditions, and to ensure that the United States remains a global leader for religious freedom advocacy,” Nelson wrote.

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