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Catholic Leaders Fault U.S. State Department for Removing Nigeria from Watch List

Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama (left) and Bishop Emmanuel Adetoyese Badejo (right) Credit: Courtesy

The exclusion of Nigeria from the list of countries with severe religious freedom violations by the U.S. State Department has “surprised” Catholic Church leaders in the West the West African nation.

In an interview with ACI Africa, two Catholic Prelates fault the U.S. State Department for the move, one saying either “wrong people” were consulted or the Department of State is after “some interest”, which disregards the plight of “the suffering people of Nigeria.”

“I was quite surprised to read of Nigeria’s exclusion from the list of designations for State and non-State religious freedom violators because there is nothing on the ground to suggest that Christians have an easier time practicing their faith in Nigeria today than they did one or two years ago,” Bishop Emmanuel Adetoyese Badejo told ACI Africa Friday, November 19.

Nigeria’s exclusion is surprising because “things have not gotten any better,” Bishop Badejo reiterated, and explained, “Extremists seem to be gaining even more territory in the North Eastern Nigeria and the kidnapping of Christian students and members have actually increased in the last year.”

In a Wednesday, November 17 press statement, the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, who was on a three-nation visit to Africa said, “Each year the Secretary of State has the responsibility to identify governments and non-state actors, who, because of their religious freedom violations, merit designation under the International Religious Freedom Act.”

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This year, the Countries of Particular Concern for religious freedom violations, according to the U.S. State Department, include Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

These, Mr. Blinken who, on November 15 started his five-day three-nation Africa visit with Kenya said, are countries whose “governments harass, arrest, threaten, jail, and kill individuals simply for seeking to live their lives in accordance with their beliefs.”

Bishop Badejo suspects that the exclusion of Nigeria from countries of particular concern for alleged violation of religious freedoms could be linked to Mr. Blinken’s visit to the West African nation. From Kenya, the top U.S. diplomat proceeded to Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja, before concluding his November 15-20 maiden African trip as Secretary of State with Senegal.

“The visit of the United States Secretary of State, Antony Blinken to the country right on the heels of the offer of this pie to the Federal government should raise some eyebrows about the real intention and purpose of the undeserved favour thus accorded to Nigeria,” the Nigerian Bishop told ACI Africa.

According to the Local Ordinary of Nigeria’s Oyo Diocese who doubles as the President of the Pan African Episcopal Committee for Social Communications (CEPACS), the exclusion of Nigeria from blacklisted countries could have two possible explanations: either “the U. S. Department of State has been consulting with the wrong people or pursuing rather in Nigeria, some interest that does not represent the suffering people of Nigeria.”

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The situation in Nigeria shows systematic and structural violation of religious freedoms, the Archbishop of Abuja has told ACI Africa in an interview.

Reacting to the news of the exclusion of Nigeria from the U.S. blacklisted countries for “having engaged in or tolerated ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom’”, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama highlighted “abuse of religious freedom” in the West African nation.

“For me, the picture is one of severe discrimination or a subtle abuse of religious freedom in some establishments and sections of the country,” Archbishop Kaigama said in the Friday, November 19 interview.

There is general “dissatisfaction … with the status-quo” in Nigeria, he said, adding that ethnic and religious marginalization “in terms of appointments to strategic positions, recruitment and promotion in the military, police and other paramilitary forces, admission into tertiary institutions, etc.” is a cause for concern in the country.

“The fact of the matter is that most victims of insecurity and terrorism in the country are adherents of Christianity and Islam (the two main religions),” Archbishop Kaigama said.

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“No doubt, Christians have suffered many losses like their Muslim counterparts, but when the perpetrators of such crimes are heard in the process chanting Islamic slogans, it is hard to convince Christians that they are not carrying out a religious agenda against them,” he said, and added, “This feeling has been aggravated by the implementation of the Sharia in some parts of Northern Nigeria.”

According to the Nigerian Archbishop, “Even before the adoption of Sharia by some Muslim dominated States in the North, Christian minorities in those States have been living under what they believe are unfair situations, such as the inability to secure land to build for Christian worship.”

Additionally, he said, in Nigeria, “some minority tribes who choose to profess Christianity instead of Islam claim they are marginalized.”

Similarly, he continued, in Nigeria, “rulers of Islamic faith are imposed on some ethnic groups that are either largely Christian or practitioners of African Traditional Religion. This has been said to be the underlying causes of agitations in Southern Kaduna and elsewhere.”

The persecution of Christians in Nigeria is on an upward trajectory, Bishop Bajedo told ACI Africa, underscoring the need for the U.S. State Department to reconsider its decision to exclude the country from the list of nations characterized with severe religious freedom violations.

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In Nigeria, Bishop Badejo says, “the scope of persecution is wide and cross cutting, involving the rape and forced marriage of Christian girls, promulgation of policies and privileges that exclude Christians and also forced conversions.”

“The Nigerian government has mostly carried on as if all is well, refusing at every turn to declare the extremists who are behind wanton destruction, grave abuse of human rights and mayhem, terrorists,” the Bishop of Nigeria’s Oyo Diocese says.

He continues, “There is almost complete lack of interest on the part of the Federal Government to help Christians who have been kidnapped en masse and the Churches concerned have simply had to pay heavy sums for the freedom of their members.”

“On the other hand, the media office of the Federal Government springs to overdrive whenever it perceives any resistance or legislation to the aggression and the occupation moves of the Muslim Fulani herdsmen who have become a menace everywhere in the country,” Bishop Badejo further says, and poses, “How can a country in this situation be given a clean bill of health then?”

As a way forward, the U.S. State Department needs to reconsider its decision to exclude Nigeria from the religious freedom violations watch list, the two Nigerian Prelates have told ACI Africa.

“I simply advice the United States to revisit that decision, to save the credibility of its listing because it is clearly premature,” Bishop Badejo has said.

According to the Nigerian Bishop, “Christians in Nigeria particularly simply cannot identify with such a whitewash of the subtle and not-so-subtle persecution of Christians that is still going on unabated in Nigeria. The United States should activate its well-recognized facility to consult with the concerned people and institutions on matters that concern the welfare of Christians and marginalized groups of Nigeria and avoid following the lead of vested and political interests, which specialize in producing nuanced stories about reality.”

Bishop Badejo’s sentiments echo those of Archbishop Kaigama who has said, “The U.S. Department of State should make further enquiries and consult more, especially with people in the grassroots.”

“The U.S. State Department should also probe for an unbiased picture about the dynamics of religion and politics in the country and a democracy that engenders a just autonomy of religion and politics,” the Nigerian Archbishop who, earlier this month, called on Nigeria’s Catholics to pray the rosary for an end to “the irrational killings and attacks resulting in internally displaced people” told ACI Africa November 19.