An international coalition of religious freedom advocates and organizations from across the political spectrum are calling on the U.S. State Department to redesignate Nigeria as a "country of particular concern" and appoint a special envoy to evaluate Christian persecution in the West African country.
On Monday, a coalition of 33 organizations and 35 individuals sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking the Biden administration to designate Nigeria as a country of particular concern, a designation signifying governments that have "engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom."
The letter calls for a special envoy to "investigate the situation and make recommendations in consultation with local representatives."
The letter comes as some human rights advocates have warned for years that predominantly Christian farming communities in the country's Middle Belt are often attacked by predominantly-Muslim ethnic herders.
Additionally, the presence of Islamic extremist groups like Boko Haram and the Islamic State in northern Nigeria has pushed millions of people from their homes.
The Nigerian government has denied that religious persecution is taking place, calling the violence responsible for thousands of deaths in recent years part of decades-old farmer-herder clashes.
"The CPC designation and Special Envoy are vital to recognizing the gravity of the religious freedom violations occurring in the country and the government's unwillingness to control the problems, as well as its contributions to the problems," the letter states.
The letter was organized by ADF International, a division of the religious liberty advocacy organization Alliance Defending Freedom. Other organizations that backed the letter include the Family Research Council, International Christian Concern, the American Humanist Association, the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Hudson Institute, the Anglican Persecuted Church Network, In Defense of Christians, the Religious Freedom Institute and Jubilee Campaign USA.
Notable signatories included former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback and former U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who spearheaded the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 that created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The letter to Blinken comes nearly a year after the State Department removed Nigeria from its annual list of countries of particular concern.
The Trump administration added Nigeria to the State Department's CPC list in 2020.
USCIRF, a nonpartisan agency that advises the U.S. government on matters related to global religious freedom, was one of several advocacy organizations that criticized Nigeria's removal from the CPC list.
ADF International Senior Counsel Sean Nelson elaborated on his concerns with the state of religious freedom in Nigeria in an interview with The Christian Post. He cited statistics from the persecution watchdog Open Doors USA, finding that "in 2021, 4,650 Christians were killed in Nigeria for their faith and that's more than all other countries combined."
"Priests are regularly, almost daily, weekly, being kidnapped, being killed by nonstate actors, by militants, by Islamic extremists and the [Nigerian] government has shown an unwillingness to really confront this problem," Nelson said.
Nelson expressed concern about "blasphemy laws that are widespread throughout the north that are leading to people being in prison for decades or even having the death penalty [imposed] on them."
ADF International provides legal support for victims of persecution, including Nigerian Christians accused of blasphemy.
"Throughout the world, we are building alliances with lawyers and with advocates to make sure that ... in every country, where there are serious religious freedom violations occurring, that those victims have legal representation and are able to make their voices heard," Nelson told CP.
Nelson praised the bipartisan group of religious freedom advocates who signed on to the letter.
In addition to the Republican Brownback, Democrat Katrina Lantos Swett, who served as the chair of USCIRF during the Obama administration, has endorsed the call for more decisive U.S. action against Nigeria.
"They're from different parties, but they come together because this is such an important issue and such a clear-cut issue of a country where serious violations of religious freedom are occurring," he said.
Nelson touted the "international support" reflected in the letter, referring to signatures from members of the United Kingdom Parliament.
"Internationally, people really recognize that the situation for religious freedom in Nigeria is terrible and is steadily getting worse," Nelson said.
Robert Destro, the former assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor during the Trump administration, also signed the letter.
When asked why he believes the State Department removed Nigeria from the CPC list, Nelson suggested that "many in the State Department do not believe that there are religious motivations behind many of the killings."
This line of thinking extends beyond the United States, Nelson said, noting that the president of Ireland said when sharing his thoughts on a Pentecost Sunday mass shooting that it's not fair to "scapegoat pastoral peoples who are among the foremost victims of the consequences of climate change."
"This is very clearly designed to attack the Christian community there," Nelson added. "It's very clearly designed to say you're not welcome in this country. And I think there's a hesitancy from the State Department to confront that reality, that Christians really are being targeted very clearly."
In its 2021 International Religious Freedom Report, the State Department acknowledged the existence of "pervasive violence involving predominantly Muslim herders and mostly Christian" farmers while suggesting that the violence equally extends to Muslim farmers.
Nelson said that ADF International has "been in contact with the State Department for several years to "regularly update them about the cases that we are supporting there."
Examples of cases ADF International is involved with in Nigeria include "Christians being brought in front of Sharia courts, where they are being accused of apostasy" in addition to "being threatened" and "jailed by the courts as they await their hearings." Nelson reported that his organization works with the State Department to ensure Christian converts can get out of jail and have their cases dismissed.
Nelson said he did not have "any particular individuals in mind" to serve as a special envoy.
"The kind of person who would be good for that is somebody who has deep experience within the region, within the country but also has real concern and expertise on human rights violations and on religious freedom violations and understands just how this is affecting victims and is able to build trust with different religious communities and people on the ground," Nelson said.
The advocate said there are several steps the governments in Nigeria can take to protect Christians and others being persecuted.
"Some of these include repealing the blasphemy laws that are widespread throughout the north, that affect not just Christians, they affect humanists, they affect minority Muslims that disagree with the majority in the region. So that's an important first step," he said.
"The government should really listen to the religious communities to hear how they're experiencing the persecution, to acknowledge the religious dimensions of the violence that's happening. The government should increase security, increase accountability when there are mob attacks against people for their faith that they should make sure that they fully investigate and find all of the perpetrators and bring appropriate charges and see those cases through to conviction."
Nelson urged religious leaders to ensure that their congregations "have a nonviolent peaceful response to their disagreements across all different political and social issues so that the different faiths there can get along without resorting to violence, without resorting to attacks on different communities."
Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org