(Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
President Barack Obama has been urged by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to speak out on the extreme sectarian violence that has led to Christians being slaughtered in churches in Nigeria, following a meeting with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.
"We respectfully urge you, Mr. President, to strongly address with President Jonathan the importance of the Nigerian government arresting and prosecuting the perpetrators of sectarian violence," USCIRF Chairman Robert P. George wrote to Obama on Monday before the meeting.
"The Nigerian government's overreliance on the use of force to tackle communal and Boko Haram violence and its failure to promote rule of law and human rights will only further destabilize this important ally."
Obama met with Jonathan in New York on Monday, where the two "reaffirmed their commitment to fighting terrorism" and ending the insurgency in northern Nigeria. The two presidents also promised to stay "in close touch" as the countries "continue to work together to promote our shared interests."
Boko Haram, the shadowy Islamic organization in Nigeria, has been waging a war against Christians and the government of Jonathan for years, slaughtering thousands across Christian communities, schools, and churches in the predominantly Muslim Northern region.
Despite this open opposition to Christians and the Nigerian state, the White House has so far failed to label Boko Haram as a terrorist organization – something which groups like the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) have strongly spoken out against.
"In my first term, about 3,000 Christians were killed. Last year alone averaged over 100 every month," said Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, president of CAN.
"Every week I get a text message – a church burnt or a pastor was murdered or Christians were randomly rounded up on a roadside and summarily executed."
USCIRF first recommended that Nigeria be named a "country of particular concern" back in 2009 for what it says is systematic religious freedom violations.
"We continue to make this recommendation. Our primary concern continues to be the Nigerian government's failure, at all levels, to hold perpetrators of Muslim-Christian communal violence accountable, leading to a culture of impunity," George continued.
"While other causes factor into the violence in areas of conflict, religion is a significant catalyst and is often misused by politicians, religious leaders, or others for political gain. Since 1999, more than 14,000 have been killed in Muslim-Christian violence, but USCIRF has confirmed only 200 persons have been found guilty for perpetrating these attacks."
USCIRF noted that the regions of Bauchi, Jos, Kaduna, and Kano have especially suffered from Boko Haram's attacks, and pose an ongoing threat to the country's stability.
"In USCIRF's view, Nigeria has the capacity to address communal, sectarian and Boko Haram violence by enforcing the rule of law and making perpetrators accountable through the judicial system, and not relying solely on a counterterrorism strategy involving the security services," George concluded.
"Such an approach would help Nigeria realize lasting progress, security, stability, and prosperity as a democracy. The United States can play an important role in encouraging and increasing the capacity of the Nigerian judiciary to undertake this kind of response."