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08/10/2022 South Africa (International Christian Concern) – In a speech at the University of Pretoria earlier this week, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken laid out the  U.S. strategy towards sub-Saharan Africa. Though the strategy is not entirely novel, it does further Secretary Blinken’s emphasis on African self-determinism and the importance of the U.S. and others treating Africa as equal players on the international playing field.

In the context of promoting African sovereignty, the new strategy emphasizes the United State’s ongoing interest in ensuring open and accessible societies across the region. Also mentioned was the importance of democracy, anti-authoritarian efforts, and combatting terror threats that have metastasized in recent years.

Notably absent from Secretary Blinken’s remarks was any mention of promoting religious freedom or human rights. The White House released a document outlining U.S. strategy in the region in conjunction with the Secretary’s speech, and that, too, failed to mention religious freedom and only addressed human rights in passing.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) earlier this year recommended that the U.S. Department of State designate Nigeria a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). This designation is required for countries that engage in or tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom and are widely regarded as a key diplomatic tool for advancing religious freedom around the world.

USCIRF makes recommendations to the State Department in a report listing countries that it believes should be designed as CPCs or added to the Special Watchlist (SWL), a less severe designation.

In the fourteen years that USCIRF has recommended Nigeria be designated as a CPC, the Department of State has only accepted its recommendation a single time, in 2020. Nigeria was subsequently taken off the CPC list in 2021—an unprecedented move that drew widespread criticism from human rights groups and USCIRF.

USCIRF called the 2021 delisting “unexplainable” in a strongly worded press release, saying it was appalled and “displeased with the removal of Nigeria from [State’s] CPC designation.” ICC and other human rights watchdogs joined USCIRF in expressing this sentiment. ICC and a coalition of NGOs worked with Congress to request an explanation from State for taking Nigeria off the CPC list.

Religious freedom conditions have not improved in Nigeria since it was added to the CPC list, according to USCIRF and other observers like ICC—a requirement under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) for delisting a CPC country.

“Furthermore,” USCIRF said in its most recent annual report, “the State Department completely bypassed downgrading the country to the SWL, indicating that Nigeria is a country with no severe religious freedom violations as defined by IRFA.”

The USCIRF report goes on to detail significant religious freedom violations in Nigeria by both state and non-state actors. Among other things, the report highlights the use of Sharia law in the north of Nigeria, something ICC has written extensively about, and repeated attacks on Christian communities in Kaduna State, where Governor Nasir El-Rufai has endangered Christian communities for years. The report also highlighted struggles experienced by Muslim communities across the country, mostly at the hands of violent militants.

Secretary Blinken has previously expressed his support for international religious freedom, saying at an event in June this year that religious freedom is “a vital foreign policy priority.” Quoting former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Blinken also said that “those nations are stronger, and the lives of their people richer, when citizens have the freedom to choose, proclaim, and exercise their religious identity.” These remarks came at an event launching the most recent International Religious Freedom report.

It is to be hoped that the Secretary’s commitment to the cause of religious freedom extends beyond religious freedom events and produces real change in Africa and elsewhere around the world.

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