Secretary of State Antony Blinken is facing backlash after taking Nigeria off of a list of countries that endorse or allow religious violence as Christian groups point to the high level of persecution in the African nation.
“State Department officials gave no reason for the move other than saying Blinken, upon the advice of various department sections, decided Nigeria didn’t meet the legal threshold to be named as ‘country of particular concern’ in an annual religious freedom list released by the secretary of State,” Politico reported.
The move was made just before Blinken made a diplomatic trip to the country.
“It’s a victory for the terrorists — it’s a defeat for anyone concerned with human rights and religious freedom,” former Republican Congressman Frank Wolf said.
Nigeria has been plagued by religious violence this year, with the number of Christians killed in July of this year already matching the total from last year, according to some reports. Many Christian aid organizations also rank Nigeria as a country with a lot of religious persecution, including Open Doors, which puts the African nation just inside the top 10 of worst persecuting countries in the world.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) was “appalled” at the State Department’s decision, calling the move “unexplainable.”
“[USCIRF] is especially displeased with the removal of Nigeria from its CPC designation, where it was rightfully placed last year, as well as the omission of India, Syria, and Vietnam. We urge the State Department to reconsider its designations based on facts presented in its own reporting,” Chair Nadine Maenza said.
Outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Nigeria as a “country of particular concern” in December 2020, and a May report from the State Department seemed to confirm that designation.
Sam Brownback, who was the special ambassador for religious freedom under the Trump administration, said the decision was the “revenge of the bureaucracy” while noting that religion definitely played a role in the violence in Nigeria.
One former State Department official told Politico that the move constituted “diplomatic malpractice.”
“You just gave leverage away. It was clearly tied to Blinken’s visit. The Nigerians clearly cared about it. Did we get anything out of it?” the former official asked.
Some officials pushed back, arguing that Blinken’s visit to Nigeria and its delisting were not related. The removal instead had to do with the timing of the release of the list, according to one official.
As Politico noted, however, deadlines are not always so strictly followed and Blinken had called out religious persecution in Nigeria earlier this year.
“In Nigeria, courts continue to convict people of blasphemy, sentencing them to long-term imprisonment or even death,” he said. “Yet the government has still not brought anyone to justice for the military’s massacre of hundreds of Shia Muslims in 2015.”
Some Christians on the ground in Nigeria say that their government doesn’t care about them. Back in September, after the killing of more than 30 Christians by Islamic Fulani herdsmen, one local pastor said that the government was actually in favor of the persecution.
“We have never seen an evil government in this country like the one of today. The government is fully in support of the bloodshed in Nigeria. We are being killed just because we are not Muslims,” Rev. Jacob Kwashi said.
He added: “These evil Fulani jihadists are enjoying the backing of the government to go about killing people, destroying their houses and farmlands, yet when we try to defend ourselves, the government will go about arresting our people. What kind of justice is this?”