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The Biden admin has turned a blind eye to violent persecution of Nigerian Christians

Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu
College student Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu was stoned to death in Sokoto, Nigeria on May 12, 2022. |

In the middle of Sunday morning services, gunmen on motorcycles surrounded and opened fire on worshippers at St. Moses Catholic Church and Maranatha Baptist Church in Kaduna state, Nigeria. Three Christians were killed and more than 30 were reportedly kidnapped. I covered it with For the Martyrs — the nonprofit I work for — but overall the story got little international attention.

Two weeks ago, on Pentecost Sunday, a tragic shooting at a Catholic Church in Owo, southwestern Nigeria, got unique international attention.

During the church service, gunmen opened fire upon the congregation and detonated explosives. Initial reports said that at least 50 people were killed, including women and many young children. The current, confirmed number is 40. Many more were injured. Doctors and volunteers scrambled to provide aid and begged the community to donate blood. The government’s interior minister blamed Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) for the attack, but the group has yet to claim responsibility.

These recent spates of violence against Christians in Nigeria did not happen in a vacuum.

For over a decade, violence against Christians has been raging across Nigeria, mainly in the north, as shootings, mobs, Islamic militants, church burnings, and kidnappings strike daily and often unreported blows to Nigeria’s Christian community. In fact, Open Doors ruled that Nigeria is the most violent place in the world for Christians, with over 4,000 Christians murdered in 2021 alone. Usually, these instances only make small waves in international news.

Nigeria is roughly half Christian and half Muslim. Christians are the majority in southern Nigeria while Muslims hold the majority in the north, according to the State Department. Islamic militant groups like ISWAP and Boko Haram, in addition to nomadic Fulani herdsmen, have targeted Christians for various reasons: land, resources, and ransom money.

But there is also a large religious component. Christians are attacked without consequence. In May, Deborah Samuel, a Christian university student, was beaten and burned to death by a Muslim mob who accused her of blaspheming Islam in a WhatsApp message. What she really said was “Jesus Christ is the greatest” and praised him for helping her pass her exams. Her horrific murder was caught on video.

Church leaders, like Methodist pastor Samuel Kanu-Uche, are often kidnapped by gangs or Islamic militants and ransomed at high prices, with some killed in captivity.

Similar events happen daily to thousands of Christian women and girls. Leah Sharibu, a young Christian woman who was kidnapped at 14 years old, has been in Boko Haram’s captivity for over four years because she refused to convert to Islam. Despite pleas from her family and NGOs, the Nigerian government has done little to rescue her.

The Nigerian government and President Muhammadu Buhari have taken few steps to stop the bleeding. If anything, the government has cut off the handful of ways Christians protect themselves. The Nigerian senate recently passed a law making it a crime punishable with 15 years in prison for families of kidnapped victims to pay ransom to return their sons or daughters. With little assurance of government rescue attempts, as in Leah Sharibu’s case, families of kidnapping victims have few options.

Nigeria’s government claims it is secular and tolerant and that it values religious freedom. And yet it is the most violent country in the world for a religious group that composes nearly half of the nation’s religious population.

Christian leaders in Nigeria have repeatedly called out President Buhari’s and the Nigerian government’s inaction. At a recent funeral for the victims of the Owo massacre, Bishop Emmanuel Badejo said the government had failed to exhibit “any desire to protect the Christian religion.”

There are steps the U.S. can take to effect change. However, the Biden Administration and the State Department have backtracked progress meant to hold the Nigerian government accountable for the religious freedom conditions in their country. In November, the State Department removed Nigeria’s designation as a Country of Particular Concern. The CPC designation is ideally accompanied by sanctions to motivate the improvement of religious freedom conditions in designated countries.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended Nigeria for the CPC list every year since 2009. And the State Department did at long last in 2020 designate Nigeria as a CPC, but it was shortly removed a year later without explanation or improvement in the country.

Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken has yet to provide a substantial reason for his decision. According to the State Department’s report, Secretary Blinken “determined that Nigeria did not meet the criteria to be designated as a Country of Particular Concern.”

Nigerian Christian leaders struggle to make sense of the U.S.’s decision as it seems both their own government and the U.S. have abandoned them. In a statement, Bishop Badejo said that “there is nothing on the ground to suggest that Christians have an easier time practicing their faith in Nigeria today than they did one or two years ago.”

He asked the U.S. State Department to reassess its decision and worried that glossing over the suffering of Nigerian Christians would jeopardize the CPC listing’s credibility. Christian NGOs, like For the Martyrs, have tirelessly made similar requests for the U.S. to return Nigeria’s CPC designation, to no avail.

Violence against Christians continues to rage across Nigeria, as bandits and extremists are given the green light to terrorize, kidnap and kill the Christian community with impunity — as shown in the Owo massacre and Sunday’s mass kidnapping. Who’s going to hear their cries?

The Biden Administration must step up. In the wake of recent events and ongoing violence, the path is clear: Redesignate Nigeria as a “country of particular concern” and motivate the Nigerian government to take action.

President Biden and the State Department have the opportunity to show Nigeria that the U.S. will not tolerate apathy towards a decade of bloodshed.

Emily Bontrager is a journalist and writer at For the Martyrs, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about Christian persecution, advocating for religious freedom and providing aid to suffering Christians around the world. She writes articles weekly on For the Martyrs' blog.

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