Critics, however, call Blinken’s move a policy, designed to appease an important African partner. A former diplomat called it a “revenge of the bureaucracy” at the State Department. Others wondered how this matched the Biden administration’s claim that human rights are at the center of its foreign policy.
The move is likely to heighten concerns among conservatives, including many evangelical Christians, that the Biden administration – unlike the Trump administration – will focus on the plight of persecuted Christians abroad.
“It’s a victory for terrorists – it’s a defeat for anyone concerned with human rights and religious freedom,” Frank Wolf, a former GOP congressman, said of the decision. by Blinken. Wolf spearheaded key legislation requiring administrations to name perpetrators of religious freedom violations; one of the laws bears his name.
The United States sees Nigeria as a key partner in the fight against terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State. Nigeria is also a major economic and political player on the African continent, which has suffered a series of coups and other instabilities in recent months.
But the issue of religious freedom in Nigeria is complicated. The country of 200 million people is roughly evenly divided between Christians and Muslims, and tensions between the two communities are often multifaceted. These could be disputes over land rights and livestock grazing, for example, or tribal differences.
In recent years, however, the rise of Islamist terrorist organizations in Nigeria has made religion a more important factor, some activists say. Some also point to the use of courts that rely on Islamic law as a challenge. Many further point out that Muslims – especially moderates – also face growing threats in Nigeria.
It is difficult to establish exact statistics on the religious violence faced by Christians or other faith groups in Nigeria, but the number of Nigerians who have died directly or indirectly as a result of conflict fueled by Islamists number in the hundreds of thousands, according to the United Nations. And there are frequent reports of attacks on places of worship, religious leaders and others.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan panel, has recommended since 2009 that the State Department designate Nigeria as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom. In 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo finally did, earning praise from the panel.
A USCIRF report on Nigeria earlier this year gave a series of examples of what appears to be faith-based violence. Among them: the kidnapping and execution in 2020 of Reverend Lawan Andimi by Boko Haram fighters.
In a press release last week, the USCIRF said it was “appalled” and “particularly unhappy” at Blinken’s turnaround on Nigeria. “We urge the State Department to reconsider its designations based on the facts presented in its own reports,” USCIRF President Nadine Maenza said in a statement.
Laws governing the Secretary of State’s decision state that governments can be labeled as “of particular concern” or put on a “special watch list” if they “have committed or tolerated” serious violations of liberty. religious.
After “a good discussion within the department,” it was decided that Nigeria did not meet the criteria for any of the worrying designations, a state official said. The official declined to say which divisions in the department took which side in internal talks, but stressed that the final conclusion does not mean that US diplomats will not continue to raise human rights issues in Nigeria.
According to people familiar with the issue, State Department officials who have long resisted listing Nigeria as a country of particular concern tend to be employees of the Africa office.
Like other regional offices in the department, the Africa Section’s top priority is not necessarily human rights – it is maintaining and improving political relations with other countries. It is not uncommon for the office to want to avoid injecting another factor into an already complex relationship with Nigeria.
Pompeo essentially rescinded department officials who fought Nigeria’s designation. He was supported by Sam Brownback, the former Kansas senator who served as the Trump administration’s special ambassador for international religious freedom.
Brownback said he had never claimed that religion was the sole factor in much of the violence in Nigeria, but that it was foolish to claim that it was not at all a factor.
“I think what you are seeing is the revenge of the bureaucracy,” Brownback said of Blinken’s decision to take Nigeria off the list.
Another former state official who deals with religious freedom issues said it was strange that Blinken had not even put Nigeria on the lower level “special watch list”.
It was a “diplomatic fault,” said the former official, speaking on condition of anonymity to be frank. The former official added: “You just gave leverage. It was clearly linked to Blinken’s visit. Nigerians clearly cared. Did we get anything out of it?”
The State Department official said Blinken’s visit had nothing to do with the release of the secretary’s list of religious freedom violators. It was more of a delay. Blinken was due to publish the list within six months of the release of the department’s annual report on international religious freedom.
But the ministry often misses deadlines without repercussions. Additionally, Blinken released the Religious Freedom Report on May 12. That meant the department had already missed the six-month deadline when it unveiled its decision on countries of particular concern on November 17.
“I understand it’s hard to believe it’s a coincidence,” the State Department official said of the timing of the trip.
In fact, when Blinken released the Religious Freedom Report in May, he specifically mentioned religious freedom violations in Nigeria as well as a few other countries.
“In Nigeria, courts continue to convict people of blasphemy, sentencing them to long-term prison terms or even death,” Blinken said at a press conference. “Yet the government has yet to bring anyone to justice for the military massacre of hundreds of Shia Muslims in 2015.”
The State Department official dismissed questions of whether the Nigerian government promised or offered anything in return for being taken off the list, saying the decision was purely a legal matter. The official said, however, that Nigerian officials are well aware of the many challenges their country faces, including extremism and a growing population.
The Nigerian Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim, has repeatedly promised that his government will not tolerate religious or ethnic violence.
Under President Joe Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, the State Department made the promotion of religious freedom one of its few human rights priorities.
The effort was led by evangelical Christians who supported Trump and who are concerned about the persecution of Christians around the world, especially in majority Muslim countries.
Today, Christian activists denounce the delisting of Nigeria by Blinken. The move appears to validate their concerns that the Biden administration will not focus on the need to protect Christians abroad.
Some of the activists say Christians are facing potential genocide in Nigeria. But they also note that members of other faiths there are also exposed to danger from extremists.
“Boko Haram has targeted both moderate Muslims and Christians,” said David Curry, president of Open Doors USA, a group that works to protect Christians around the world. He said his organization is reaching out to U.S. lawmakers and hopes to convince Blinken to change his mind.
The Biden administration has stressed that it cares about all kinds of human rights and does not plan to focus on one right over others – the way the Trump team gave priority to religious freedom. But the Biden administration has also made a number of decisions that show it won’t always put human rights above US national interests.
This appears to include ignoring another USCIRF recommendation and removing India from the list of countries of particular concern.
Biden and colleagues see India as a crucial partner in America’s growing competition with China. As a result, they have said little publicly about the growing religious violence against Muslims in India.
Blinken, however, followed another USCIRF recommendation and added Russia to the list of countries of particular concern. The administration disagrees with Moscow on a range of issues.