Giving hope to persecuted Christians since 1995
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By Greg Cochran, Ph.D., ICC Fellow

In a rare glimpse of political solidarity, a group of lawmakers in Washington, D.C., tuned their instruments of political influence to sound a single note. Democrats, Republicans, Roman Catholics, and Protestants spoke in concert recently to urge President Biden to reconsider his administration’s removal of Nigeria from the list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC).  

At issue is the Biden Administration’s decision to delete Nigeria from the CPC list. On November 17, 2021, Nigeria was erased from the list against the recommendation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The Trump administration had added Nigeria to the list a year earlier, in December 2020. 

Since November 2021, stakeholders and citizens from both the U.S. and Nigeria have expressed concerns. Responses have varied from outrage to approbation. Along the lines of outrage, the USCIRF penned a statement titled, “USCIRF Outraged by Omission of Nigeria and India from State Department’s List of Countries of Particular Concern.” In that statement, USCIRF Chair Nury Turkel stated there is no justification for the failure to recognize Nigeria as an egregious violator of religious freedom. Further, Turkel noted that the State Department’s own research chronicles copious examples of severe violations in Nigeria.  

U.S. lawmakers speaking against the removal have communicated both confusion and dismay as violence in Nigeria has continued apace. Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, one of the authors of the February 2, 2023, resolution to Congress, said, “Last year alone, 5,014 Christians were killed in Nigeria—accounting for nearly 90% of Christian deaths worldwide as well [as] 90% of Christian kidnappings across the globe.” 

John Eibner, president of Christian Solidarity International, dispatched a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. In that letter, Eibner noted how his organization is updated daily on new violence. The gravity of his concern is clear in the letter to Secretary Blinken: “The U.S.’s removal of Nigeria from the CPC list sends ‘a message to perpetrators and victims alike, that crimes driven and legitimized by religious ideology, in particular the various strands of Muslim supremacism, remain of no particular concern to the State Department.’” 

On the opposite end of the response spectrum, some Muslim leaders in Nigeria have voiced appreciation for the decision by the Biden administration. Sheikh Khalid Abubakar Aliyu, secretary general of Jama’atu Nasril Islam, has said the decision deserves to be commended. Aliyu believes Nigeria was put on the list as a result of bias and overreactions. According to Aliyu“Religious people are supposed to be a beacon of truthfulness and uprightness. This is very important. It is not true that Christians are being targeted. It is a blatant lie, unfounded and untrue. You have to show evidence, facts and figures to prove that you are the main victims of violent conflicts of Boko Haram or whatever. Muslims are the (main) victims. There’s no comparison between Christians and Muslims in terms of who the (real) victims of these monstrous inhumanity of man to man are.” 

Much of Aliyu’s statement needs to be affirmed. Religious people should be committed to truthfulness and uprightness. Evidence and facts ought to establish the decision regarding Nigeria’s inclusion on the CPC list (or not). But a few questions persist concerning whether Muslims or Christians are the main victims. First, what perception is held among Nigerian Christians regarding violence and the need for CPC designation? Second, what do the facts and figures suggest? Third, does it matter who suffers most?  

Concerning the first question, a recent study demonstrates that Christians in Nigeria certainly perceive they are being targeted. Of course, as Aliyu notes, this perception does not prove that persecution exists against Christians in Nigeria. However, the prevalence of this perception is a clear indication that something is causing unrest in the Christian community.  

In a peer-reviewed journal, Dr. Tarela Juliet Ike published a phenomenological study recently that establishes the case of religious insecurity among Christians in Nigeria. According to Dr. Ike’s research, Christians suffer fear and insecurity in Nigeria, resulting from a ploy to undermine the Christian identity as a safe space. Stated more directly, Christians have a reinforced perception of being victimized by Muslims. 

Again, this research is not intended as proof of the “facts and figures” variety, yet it is an indicator that the situation in Nigeria is concerning, straining peaceful and harmonious Christian-Muslim relations. According to the research, Participants were keen to also discuss the role of terrorism as part of what influences their overall experiences of insecurity, particularly as it relates to the terrorist ideologies often construed as religiously motivated and a quest to dominate and instill Islam on all Nigerians.  

The violence shapes how Christians understand themselves in Nigeria: “It’s like being a Christian is tantamount to victimization,” according to one of Dr. Ike’s interviewees. Clearly, Christian perception pinpoints religious violence as a matter of particular concern. Violence is happening. It’s happening against Christians. Violence against Christians is affecting Christian identity. Violence is happening against Muslims, too. Everyone who researches Nigeria’s current situation—Sheikh Khalid Abubakar Aliyu included—recognizes that Boko Haram and other terrorist groups are targeting religious persons with violence. Muslims and Christians alike understand religious violence is a particular concern for the nation. 

The second question persisting in response to Nigeria’s disappearance from the CPC list is this:  What do the facts and figures suggest regarding religious violence? This question proves to be complex. Researchers and policymakers recognize that violence is multi-faceted and not always easily categorized. John McCaslin, writing for the Council on Foreign Relations, provides an overview of recent violence, pointing out the vagaries and complexities in Nigeria which make it difficult to categorize violence cleanly.  

For instance, McCaslin agrees that most of Boko Haram’s victims are Muslims. Nonetheless, he concedes, “Christians are certainly murdered in Nigeria, and in some cases, they are murdered because they are Christian.” However, McCaslin believes much violence classified as “religious” could (or should) be interpreted as either ethnic or the result of boundary clashes and land disputes. Still, he admits the reality of violence targeting Christians qua Christians. Indeed, when Christians are attacked at worship services on Christmas day, the conclusion that they are being targeted specifically as Christians is difficult to overlook. On the issue of Christians representing the smaller population of those victimized, McCaslin notes, “The smaller number of Christian deaths at the hands of Boko Haram likely reflects the fact that most of [the Christians] have fled” from areas with a strong Boko Haram presence. 

McCaslin offers an adequate overview of the diverse factors influencing violence in Nigeria, violence which includes Muslim Fulani herdsmen, Christian farmers, Boko Haram, individual extremists (in the wake of blasphemy laws), ISIS-West Africa, criminals, and vigilante militia filling in for inadequate government forces. From his overview, McCaslin concludes that “violence may fall along ethnic and religious lines, but it is not necessarily driven by those distinctions.” For him, this complexity renders the categorization of violence extremely difficult. While violence may not be driven by religion in all cases, it is certainly driven by religion in some cases, which brings the matter back to the heart of the second question: what do the facts and figures show?  

Facts and figures provided by the U.N. show clearly that religious violence is a problem in Nigeria. Dr. Ike’s research states the facts plainly: “According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees… Boko Haram is responsible for displacing approximately 2.4 million people in the Lake Chad Basin and over 2 million people in Nigeria.” Dr. Ike traces the main influences leading to the formation of Boko Haram and concludes: “Boko Haram’s link to jihad and Salafi-jihadism stems from the combination of Salafis theology and jihadist ideology. The combination justifies its killing of fellow Muslims and other religions not supporting its ideology which aims to Islamise Nigeria, abolish Western influences, and establish a caliphate governed by strict Sharia law.”  

For more than two decades, Boko Haram has committed religious violence—mainly in Nigeria. The organization is responsible for hundreds of kidnappings, approximately 50,000 killings, and the displacement of 2 million Nigerian people. The elimination of Boko Haram—and their contribution to religious violence in Nigeria—has been a prominent feature of national debate, especially during election cycles. The various candidates pledge to get control of the violence. No one disputes religious violence in Nigeria through Boko Haram.  

The facts and figures regarding Boko Haram alone may justify affixing CPC to Nigeria’s official status, although the Director of National Intelligence’s “Counter Terrorism Guide” reports that Boko Haram’s influence is waning in the aftermath of the death of Abubakar Shekau in 2021. The potential waning of Boko Haram offers little consolation for Nigerians, however, on account of ISIS-WA gaining strength (along with gaining some former Boko Haram members). Given these facts and figures, the second question seems to be answered. The facts and figures regarding religious violence in Nigeria—using only Boko Haram—seem particularly concerning, leaving the third question to be answered: Does it matter which religion suffers most? 

To help answer the third question, the definitions found in the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) and the International Religious Freedom Act of 2016 (Frank Wolf Act) prove indispensable. The USCIRF adheres closely to these acts in making their recommended inclusions on the CPC list. As these acts define them, CPC countries are those in which “the government engages in or tolerates ‘particularly severe’ violations of religious freedom.” Is Nigeria a country in which the government engages in or tolerates “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom?  

According to Open Doors International, the answer must be yes. For decades, Open Doors has compiled a persecution watch list to monitor countries with particularly severe records of violence. Nigeria has been a perennially top ten country. In their full country dossier on Nigeria, Open Doors notes that Nigeria’s Christians have been increasingly more traumatized in the last 8 years. The organization produces a “Persecution Pressure Average,” which surveys 5 different spheres of life. The evidence indicates that Nigerian Christians are under more pressure now than they were 10 years ago. As the dossier concludes“It is not always that (mainly) Christian villages are attacked. But when that is the case, it is not that the assailants want to kill as many members of the villages as possible; if so, they would operate differently. It seems that the creation of an atmosphere of terror is the main goal, along with the opportunity to rob other people’s possessions.”  

In other words, the Open Doors dossier affirms what the legislators in the U.S. have been saying. And the legislators’ concerns resonate with Dr. Ike’s phenomenological research on Nigeria’s Christians. All the facts point to the same conclusion reached by the USCIRF: Nigeria is a country of particular concern. 

A case could be made based on Christian persecution alone that Nigeria is a nation of particular concern. Yet, as Sheikh Aliyu notes, it need not be so. The truth is that thousands of minority Muslims suffer religious violence in Nigeria, too. The fact that both Christians and minority Muslims suffer these atrocities alike is no argument against the placement of Nigeria on the CPC list. Quite the opposite.  

The definition of CPC countries is not that these are the nations targeting one specific group for extinction; that would be genocide. The requirement for a CPC listing is that the government tolerates particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Nigeria appears to meet that unhappy standard.  

For Christians in Nigeria, the pressure is surely proving their steadfast character. As Paul writes in Romans 5, that character will produce the kind of hope that does not disappoint. Though the trials will threaten Christian identity, the outcome of faith will prove that Nigerian Christians identify less with victimization than they do with the victory of a resurrected Lord.