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Biden admin. must act on Christian persecution in Nigeria

Ondo State governor Rotimi Akeredolu (3rd L) points to blood the stained floor after an attack by gunmen at St. Francis Catholic Church in Owo town, southwest Nigeria on June 5, 2022. - Gunmen with explosives stormed a Catholic church and opened fire in southwest Nigeria on June 5, killing "many" worshipers and wounding others, the government and police said. The violence at St. Francis Catholic Church in Owo town in Ondo State erupted during the morning service in a rare attack in the southwest of Nigeria, where jihadists and criminal gangs operate in other regions. | AFP via Getty Images

Last year, I wrote here about the concerning, rising persecution of Christians in Nigeria. What was true then has become even worse now, and the time is long since passed for the Biden Administration to act.

Over 50 Nigerian Catholics were killed while attending Mass this past weekend when a bomb was detonated, and gunmen opened fire on the congregation. This was a coordinated act of terror – the gunmen disguised themselves as congregants and positioned themselves inside the church to inflict the maximum amount of death and destruction. Police also found three undetonated Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in addition to the one that was detonated. While the government is still searching for the terrorists, they are likely members of the same groups who have been committing violence against Christians in southern Nigeria for years — Boko Haram and the Fulani herdsmen.

These attacks have been going on for well over a decade in Nigeria. In 2018, 110 schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram, who sold the girls into slavery. In 2014, Boko Haram attacked Gamboru Ngala and massacred 310 Nigerians. These stories are tragic and infuriating; their antagonists, barbaric and brutal. While all southern Nigerians are under threat of attack by Boko Haram and its offshoot, Islamic State in West Africa Peninsula (ISWAP), Christians suffer particularly violent persecution. Open Doors notes that 2021 saw a 25% increase in attacks against Christians from the previous year. Roughly 16 Christians are killed on average every day.

As I’ve written before, the Trump Administration recognized this persecution and took steps to deal with it. In December 2020, we added Nigeria to the Department of State’s “Countries of Particular Concern” list. We did this because the Nigerian government was tolerating the systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of the religious freedom of its people, and it was allowing them to suffer at the hands of radical Islamic terror. This designation signaled to the Nigerian government that swift action on their part was needed to put an end to this persecution or else sanctions and further diplomatic pressure would follow. 

Our actions fit into the broader strategy the Trump Administration employed: to make religious freedom a priority and take seriously violations of religious freedom around the world, which also included declaring the brutal policies of the Chinese Communist Party towards Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang as amounting to genocide. America must not ignore that religious freedom is essential to the strength of the free world.

Unfortunately, the tragedy persists and the Biden Administration is doing little to demand the Nigerian government take action. Last November, the Administration removed Nigeria from the Countries of Particular Concern list. Given the rising persecution of Christians and the staggering number killed every year, this is a confusing decision. Apparently, this Administration refuses to see Christians as victims, no matter where they are in the world. This skewed view leads to policy decisions that have resulted in rapidly increasing tragedy. The Nigerian government will not deal with this problem until costs are imposed for not doing so — the United States has the means to impose these costs and should do so immediately.

The ACLJ is actively engaged in the effort to raise awareness of and demand action regarding the ongoing atrocities committed against Christians in Nigeria. We have filed multiple written submissions and made critical oral interventions at the U.N. Human Rights Council. And just this week, the ACLJ legal team sent a letter directly to Secretary of State Blinken urging that Nigeria be put back on this critical persecution watchlist. I’m eager to engage in this work as we seek to stop these ongoing tragedies.

Religious liberty is a foundational freedom. No society that denies its people the right to worship according to their beliefs, or which allows that right to come under attack without consequence, can claim to be good in any other way. That is why a foreign policy that takes seriously the issue of ensuring religious freedom elsewhere in the world — including the religious freedom of Christians — is critical to serving America’s interests. The Biden Administration must demand that Nigeria defend its Christians. 

Originally published at ACLJ.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is the Senior Counsel for Global Affairs at the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). Before joining the ACLJ, Pompeo led the U.S. State Department as Secretary of State. Prior to that, he served as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Pompeo also served four terms in Congress, representing Kansas’ 4th District. During his tenure, he served on the House Intelligence Committee, as well as the Energy and Commerce Committee and House Select Benghazi Committee.

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