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A Nigerian Christian family. Photo courtesy of Open Doors USA.

Why Nigeria’s Christians feel abandoned by the United States

In late November, numerous international observers — including human rights groups, media organizations and Christians focusing on religious freedom — were shocked and stunned when the Biden administration inexplicably removed Nigeria’s “Country of Particular Concern” designation. This happened just hours after Secretary of State Antony Blinken launched his first outreach to Africa.

Perhaps to some, it appeared to be an ambassadorial feel-good gesture. But in fact, Nigeria’s delisting was seen by numerous informed observers as an outrageous betrayal of an already brutalized Christian community. The decision ignored years of well-documented murders and mutilations, death squads, torched villages and farmlands, and devastated homeless refugees.

After years of those abuses, the Trump administration began to look more closely at the Islamic extremist targeting of Nigerian Christians. It came to a head when Trump publicly asked his Nigerian counterpart about the issue at a press conference.  A new policy was announced by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Nigeria’s “Country of Particular Concern” designation was first made in early December 2020. Then, less than a year later and without explanation, the CPC designation was removed.


Mass burial of women and children murdered in a midnight raid March 11, 2019 in Kajuru, a governance area in Kaduna state, North Central Nigeria. Photo: Steven Kefas in Nigeria.

In response, 47 interfaith groups and individuals signed a letter calling for the Biden administration to reinstate Nigeria as a CPC. The letter read, in part:

How can it be, less than a year after that significant designation, that Nigeria’s CPC designation has been dropped without a public explanation? The ongoing violence, killing, and displacement against Christians and others have only increased. In fact, during 2021, massacres happen almost nightly, while by day, young boys are killed in the fields. Pregnant women are brutally dismembered, their babies mutilated before their eyes. And now, an entire church congregation has been abducted and held captive. …

For years, the Nigerian government has done virtually nothing to stop this violence. In order for Nigeria to have been removed from the key list of Countries of Particular Concern, it ought to have demonstrated substantial progress in protecting religious communities from attacks and affirming the right of all people to practice their faith freely. This did not happen, and the removal of Nigeria’s CPC designation is unjustified and sends the wrong message to governments around the world who engage in or tolerate egregious violations of religious freedom.

If America ignores what’s happening in Nigeria, it will only excuse leaders who choose to turn a blind eye to such travesties, in Nigeria and around the world. International pressure is one of the most significant weapons the world has to stop the slow-motion war unfolding in Nigeria. American leaders must not turn their backs and walk away.

Family Research Council initiated, signed and circulated the letter. FRC President Tony Perkins, who also serves on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, commented:

The CPC designation is the U.S. government’s official ‘worst of the worst’ list regarding religious freedom violations. Nigeria’s religious freedom problems are obvious and rapidly deteriorating even further. The Biden administration’s removal of Nigeria from the CPC list defies logic and sound policymaking. This must be remedied, and Nigeria placed back on the CPC list so the full force of the federal government can be harnessed to address this crisis.

Other signatories who joined the FRC included Alliance Defending Freedom International, International Christian Concern, ChinaAid, the Orthodox Public Affairs Committee and the Church of Scientology National Affairs Group, among others.


Notable individual signers included former U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, Anglican Church of Nigeria Director of Communications Hassan John, Evangelical Church Winning All President Stephen Baba Panya, Anglican Archishop Benjamin Kwashi and Christian Freedom International President and CEO Wendy Wright.

Fox News explained:

The letter cites a Catholic News Agency report from July, noting that an estimated 3,462 Christians had been killed in Nigeria in the first 200 days of 2021, which equates to 17 Christians murdered every day in Africa’s most populous country.

“For years, the Nigerian government has done virtually nothing to stop this violence,” the letter adds. The advocates argue that Nigeria should only get removed from the CPC list after having “demonstrated substantial progress” on religious freedom, but since that has not happened, Nigeria’s removal from the list “sends the wrong message to governments around the world who engage in or tolerate egregious violations of religious freedom.”

International expert Michael Rubin offered his perspective of the Biden decision:

Last month, the secretary traveled to Nigeria. After mildly criticizing Nigeria’s press freedom and human rights record, Blinken removed Nigeria from the list of countries violating religious freedom. What Blinken saw as balance, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari considers a green light to further his “Fulanization” drive. Genocide Watch has called Nigeria “a killing field of defenseless Christians” due to attacks by Fulani jihadists. Since Buhari came to power, he has encouraged co-ethnic Fulani “herdsmen,” who have in turn murdered more than 11,000 Christian farmers.

Let’s be clear, the issue is not passive migration due to “climate change.” Global warming did not burn down 2,000 churches or selectively cause four million Nigerian Christians to flee their homes. While some in Washington, including at the Congressional Research Service, belittle concerns about religious freedom in Nigeria, multiple reports and videos show the reality of the problem. The situation in Biafra is especially dire as Buhari seeks to complete the job he began as an officer during the civil war.

Meanwhile, following Biden’s delisting of Nigeria in early December, International Christian Concern reported the massacre of 10 Christians by a mob of 500 Fulani militants that swept into their village. “You would assume that an attack of this scale would elicit a response from the Nigerian government,” the ICC report said. “However, attacks of this nature have been ongoing for the past 20 years and the silence is deafening. While the government claims to be doing its best to curb the violence, the reality paints a different picture of a Muslim-led government allowing anti-Christian violence to continue without consequence.”

According to the Washington Times, in November, ICC named Nigeria as a “Persecutor of the Year,” describing the country as “one of the deadliest places on earth for Christians, as 50,000 to 70,000 have been killed since 2000.”

On Dec. 11, ICC also reported that a Christian pastor was killed in captivity after his wife personally delivered his ransom to his captors. The Rev. Dauda Bature, pastor of the Evangelical Church Winning All in Kaduna state, was murdered a month after his kidnapping. Bature’s death was reported by the Rev. Joseph John Hayab, chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria in Kaduna State.

Hayab also had a meeting with the U.S. secretary of state during his November visit to Nigeria. Hayab’s words to Blinken sum up what Nigerian Christians and Western observers have sadly concluded:

When I met with Antony John Blinken … I expressed how disappointed the Christians in Nigeria were following the U.S.’s deletion of Nigeria from the CPC list. What I said to Blinken was that, because Nigeria still has grave problems with religious persecution, his action was like that of a doctor discharging a patient from the hospital, even though the patient is critically ill. 

What that signifies is telling the patient to go home and die.

Lela Gilbert is senior fellow for international religious freedom at the Family Research Council and fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter @lelagilbert.