Every day, Tassie Ghata, director of a non-denominational Christian ministry in Nigeria, must swallow the numbing fear her family faces while practicing their faith in a nation where kidnappings and slayings of Christians number in the thousands each year.
“When my daughter was six years old, she came to me and said, ‘Mommy, when Boko Haram or the kidnappers come to our house and want to kill us, how will they do it?’” she told a gathering of international religious freedom advocates in Washington, D.C., late last month.
Ghata recalled trying to calm her daughter’s fears while knowing they were all too real – that her daughter and other girls regularly discussed the deadly Islamic militant group’s kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in 2014, many of whom are Christian. Only roughly half ever escaped and returned home.
“This is the kind of life we are living in Nigeria,” Ghata told a group of dignitaries and leading human rights activists at the International Religious Freedom Summit gathering in Washington on Jan. 31. She went on to describe her own harrowing abduction in January 2020 by Boko Haram militants who threatened to rape her but ultimately let her go after three days.
In 2014, first lady Michelle Obama made the tragic and shocking plight of the kidnapped schoolgirls a well-known cause with a hashtag social media campaign “BringBackOurGirls.” But the campaign, which succeeded in generating millions of tweets and raising global awareness of the kidnappings, ultimately fizzled. In the absence of sustained public pressure, the kidnappings have largely faded from international headlines even though Boko Haram and other militant groups like it in Nigeria have only escalated their violence.
The reign of terror that Christians experience in the western African nation has gone on for decades but has grown increasingly bold and deadly in recent years. Islamic radicals have torched churches and villages, sexually abused women and girls, and slaughtered entire Catholic and other Christian congregations. Boko Haram is just one of several perpetrators that include the Islamic State West Africa Province, or ISWAP, as well as radicalized Fulani tribesmen.
Last month, a Nigerian Catholic priest, Fr. Isaac Achi, was burned to death in an attack on his parish in Kafin-Koro, in central Nigeria, according to local reports and the Vatican. The unknown group of attackers burned Achi alive and shot his assistant, Fr. Collins Omeh, in the back as he tried to escape the blaze. Omeh, who survived the assault, said the gunmen were shouting jihadi slogans.
Just days earlier, in Katsina state to the north, hundreds of bandits on motorcycles stormed a church and kidnapped 25 congregants while they worshipped. On Jan. 18, Pope Francis asked for prayers for Achi and all persecuted Christians around the world.
One particularly violent attack took place during a Pentecost Sunday service in June when explosives detonated at a Catholic Church in Ondo state in southwestern Nigeria. At least 50 people were killed, including many children, according to a local doctor. Such attacks had been rare in that part of the country, but human rights activists say the massacre in Ondo showed that the violence has spread. The Vatican released a statement from Pope Francis condemning the attack and praying for the victims and the country.
Christians make up nearly half of Nigeria’s population of 200 million, but they are the victims of the vast majority of the attacks. Today, Nigeria is the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian, according to leading religious freedom advocates.
The World Index of Christian Persecution states that Nigeria is where 89% of Christian killings throughout the world took place over the last several years. In 2022, 5,621 Christians worldwide were killed for their faith, with 90% of these killings occurring in Nigeria, according to a Jan. 17 report by Open Doors, a watchdog that tracks Christian persecution.
Despite these numbers and the brazen bombings of churches, the Biden administration omitted Nigeria as a “country of particular concern” in its 2021 and 2022 International Religious Freedom Reports, an annual blacklist of countries where faith-based persecution is widespread. In explaining the decision, Secretary of State Antony Blinken argued that the slaughter of Christians was not religious persecution but a result of a conflict over resources exacerbated by climate change. Though Nigeria has one of strongest economies in Africa, jobs and resources have not extended to the country’s more rural and agricultural regions, leading to conflict.
Religious freedom advocates on both sides of the aisle have rejected the Biden administration’s argument. The U.S. Commission on International Religious freedom, or USCIRF, in December, issued a statement expressing outrage over Nigeria’s and India’s “inexplicable” omission on the State Department’s annual watchlist. The commission’s leadership is made up of an equal number of commissioners appointed by Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress.
“There is no justification for the State Department’s failure to recognize Nigeria or India as egregious violators of religious freedom, as they each clearly meet the legal standards for designation as [countries of particular concern],” said USCIRF Chair Nury Turkel. “The State Department’s own reporting includes numerous examples of particularly severe religious freedom violations in Nigeria and India.”
In late January, Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican and leading human rights champion in Congress, introduced a bipartisan resolution to once again place Nigeria on the State Department’s annual blacklist. Its top co-sponsors are Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, and French Hill, an Arkansas Republican. The bill would also require Biden to appoint a special envoy to Nigeria and the Lake Chad region to monitor atrocities against Christians, minority Muslim populations, and other religious minorities.
The administration’s decision to omit Nigeria from the list relieved pressure on Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and fails to hold him to account for ongoing and systemic attacks on Christians, Smith argued.
“The Biden administration’s totally unjustified decision to retreat from the noble and necessary fight to protect victims of religious persecution puts even more people in jeopardy,” said Smith, who has chaired multiple congressional hearings on the massacres in Nigeria and has led three trips to the country in recent years.
“The failure to hold Buhari to account – and even him by withdrawing the [blacklist] designation – will only embolden Fulani militants,” he added. “The administration must act immediately and redesignate Nigeria as a Country of Particular Concern to mitigate this alarming and growing threat to religious liberty, especially given the upcoming presidential elections.”
Nigeria is set to elect a new president to succeed the outgoing Buhari, and there are 18 candidates on the ballot, though only three top contenders. So far, Blinken isn’t budging. A U.S. State Department official issued a statement this week, standing by Blinken’s decision to keep Nigeria off the list of religious liberty offenders.
“After careful review, the secretary has assessed that Nigeria does not meet the legal threshold for designation under the International Religious Freedom Act,” a State Department spokesperson told RealClearPolitics, without explaining how Blinken came to that determination.
The spokesperson stressed that the agency continues to have “concerns about the religious freedom situation in Nigeria” and has documented those concerns in the department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report.
The spokesperson also noted that U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain met with Buhari, Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs Onyeama, and Nigerian National Security Adviser Monguno during his January trip to Mauritania and discussed a range of religious freedom concerns with them.
“We will continue to press the [Nigerian] government to address these,” the spokesperson said.
The statement also said the State Department has redesignated two terrorist organizations within Nigeria – Boko Haram and ISWAP – as “Entities of Particular Concern for religious freedom” as well as foreign terrorist organizations and specially designated global terrorists.
The State Department by law must issue the annual assessment of religious persecution around the world. Doing so is required under the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016, named for former Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican and leading human rights champion who served in Congress for more than three decades.
At the religious freedom summit, Wolf, now a USCIRF commissioner, repeatedly urged Blinken to reconsider his decision to delist Nigeria from its annual report of worst religious liberty offenders.
“This can literally save thousands of lives,” Wolf told the gathering. “We can save Nigeria. Nigeria is the largest country in Africa … in 2050, they [are projected] to have more people than the United States. So goes Nigeria, so goes all of West Africa.”
Other human rights activists argue that the Nigerian government is not prosecuting crimes against Christians and other religious minorities and are complicit in the killings.
Bishop Jude Arogundade of the Diocese of Ondo, Nigeria, where the deadly attack on Pentecost Sunday in June took place, told the International Religious Freedom Summit that Buhari and his ruling party have ties to terrorists and are “involved in the attacks.” He has previously described Christian persecution in Nigeria as so pervasive and deadly that it borders on genocide.
Nina Shea, a human rights lawyer and religious freedom expert at the conservative Hudson Institute, has been urging the Biden administration for more than a year to once again blacklist Nigeria. She said failing to hold the Nigerian government to account for the atrocities could lead to more destabilizing economic and national security problems for all of Africa.
“If Nigeria becomes divided along religious ethnic lines, it’s going to tear apart, and a failed Nigeria is a failed Africa because it’s so populous and has one of the largest economies,” she told RCP. “We’re headed toward a national security crisis if we continue to ignore this, not to mention the massive human suffering.”
Welcome to the discussion.
Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.