(Open Doors) — Only a week after the U.S. State Department removed Nigeria as a “country of particular concern” from its religious freedom watch list, Christians in northern Nigeria received threatening letters demanding they make an impossible choice: Shutter their churches or risk “ferocious” attacks.
The letters are startling even for Nigeria, which boasts the world’s highest rate of religiously motivated violence. In addition to physical assault, the country’s radical extremists are now using fear and intimidation tactics to terrify Nigerian Christians and send a clear message: You are not welcome here.
The State Department’s actions have communicated that these attackers will not be held accountable for their crimes. Instead, radical Islamic groups are now emboldened to wreak havoc and the government of Nigeria is rewarded for standing idly by. America has abandoned religious minorities in the region to suffer without relief or recourse.
Open Doors USA, the organization I lead, has repeatedly called on government officials to intervene in the steady and alarming rise of religious violence in sub-Saharan Africa. Nigeria ranked as the ninth most dangerous country to be a Christian on the 2021 World Watch List. The country is the epicenter of attacks by radical extremist groups and is ground zero for the new caliphate — a state governed by Islamic law.
In Nigeria alone, an average of 10 to 17 Christians are killed for their faith every day. Ninety percent of all Christian martyrs are murdered in sub-Saharan Africa. Burkina Faso, Chad, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mali have each seen spikes of religiously motivated violence in recent years. Count the attacks carried out by radicals in Kenya, Mozambique and Somalia; a frightening pattern emerges: Radical Islamic groups are expanding their territory, and few authorities are stopping them.
Yet, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari appreciated his country’s removal from the CPC list, noting Nigeria technically grants the freedom to worship and claiming “no one is discriminated against on the basis of his or her faith.” While this may be true on paper, practical evidence to the contrary is far too alarming to overlook. When it comes to human rights violations, complicity is also a matter of particular concern.
That’s why the State Department’s CPC designation has never been more essential. The U.S. president is required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to review the status of religious freedom in every country annually and designate those that have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” The Biden administration’s decision to end Nigeria’s designation is not only a likely violation of that law; it also emboldens radicalized groups and enables the Nigerian government to tolerate their proliferation.
Illia Djadi, an analyst for Open Doors Africa, recently said: “The change of position by the U.S. government has left Nigerian Christians feeling abandoned. Christians have viewed the U.S. as a partner and find this denial extremely disappointing.”
Where Nigerian Christians had few allies, now there are fewer. This is precisely the opposite message that turns the tide toward religious freedom. We need a concerted, multinational effort to counter the complicity of Nigeria’s government if we expect to preserve the free practice of faith throughout the African continent.
The letters sent to Christians in Nigeria’s Zamfara state demonstrate the Nigerian church is not free. The threats identify specific churches as “listed for attack,” then call for the closure of every congregation in the state. In effect, the extremists behind the letters are holding Zamfara’s churches for ransom, payable only by discontinuing worship.
Certainly, this could happen anywhere. But a functioning democracy should not permit human rights violations like these to happen repeatedly and with impunity.
In the case of the Zamfara letters, there’s a faint twinge of hope in that local authorities — including police — are helping to implement security measures for the threatened congregations. Nigeria needs more of that, and it needs a federal government that will mobilize to arrest, charge and punish anyone who violates the right to worship that Buhari claims his citizens enjoy.
(David Curry is president and CEO of Open Doors USA, which advocates on behalf of those who are persecuted for their Christian faith. Follow on Twitter @OpenDoors. For more than 60 years, Open Doors USA has worked in the world’s most oppressive and restrictive countries for Christians. Open Doors works to equip and encourage Christians living in dangerous circumstances with the threat of persecution and equips the Western church to advocate for the persecuted. Christians are one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world and are oppressed in at least 60 countries. For more information, visit OpenDoorsUSA.org.)