Nigeria risks economic sanctions as US lawmakers push its designation as religiously intolerant

Five members of the United States Senate have written to the United States Secretary of State Anthony Blinken urging him to restore Nigeria’s designation as a Country of Particular Concern for religious intolerance following the recent spate of killings of Christians in the country, a move that could translate to new economic sanctions.

The Senators: Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, Mike Braun, James Inhofe and Tom Cotton, said the recent high-profile acts of violence underscore the intense religious persecution that is regularly experienced by Nigerian Christians which has worsened in recent years

Country of Particular Concern (CPC) is a designation by the United States Secretary of State (under authority delegated by the President) of a nation guilty of particularly severe violations of religious freedom under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998 and its amendment of 1999 (Public Law 106-55).

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The term “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” means systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, including violations related to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; prolonged detention without charges; abduction and other flagrant denials of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.

Nations so designated are subject to further actions, including economic sanctions, by the United States. Economic sanctions can range from travel bans and export restrictions to trade embargos and asset seizures.

The U.S. believes it is their responsibility to provide information regarding the status of religious freedom worldwide so that the international community can identify and implement solutions to address challenges to religious freedom

In a letter dated June 29, 2022, signed by the five US lawmakers and addressed to the Secretary of State, they reminded Blinken that “last year, you inexplicably removed Nigeria’s designation as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC).”

While noting the lack of demonstrable improvement in the country’s religious freedom conditions, the Senators stated: “The situation in Nigeria has grown worse. We previously urged you to immediately reverse your misguided decision, and we write today to renew our call.”

Some of the instances cited to support the notion of religious intolerance in Nigeria, include the massacre of churchgoers on Pentecost Sunday in Ondo State and the stoning of a Christian college student, Deborah Yakubu.

“Sadly, such violence has become all too familiar for Christians in Africa’s most populous country…On Pentecost Sunday, gunmen attacked St. Francis Catholic Church in Nigeria’s Ondo State, reportedly killing at least 50 churchgoers.

“Last month, a violent mob brutally stoned to death Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu, a student at Shehu Shagari College of Education in Northwest Nigeria. According to reports, some Islamist students were enraged by a ‘blasphemous’ message Deborah had posted in a WhatsApp group, in which she said that ‘Jesus Christ is the greatest. He helped me pass my exams.’ Merely expressing one’s Christian faith has apparently become tantamount to a death sentence in many parts of Nigeria.”

The senators said one report documented more than 4, 650 cases of Nigerian Christians who were killed for their faith in 2021, adding, “Accordingly, Nigeria earns the dubious honour-for the second consecutive year of being the deadliest country on earth for Christians.”

Urging swift action “on this important matter,” the lawmakers told Blinken: “The State Department released its 2021 report on International Religious Freedom on June 2, which starts the 90-day timeline for the department to make its religious freedom designations.

“Given the abysmal state of religious freedom in Nigeria, it is incumbent upon you to reverse last year’s decision and re-designate the country as a CPC. The moment demands that you do so without delay.

“Despite public statements from you and other State Department officials condemning the recent bloodshed in Nigeria, the fact remains that the Department still does not officially regard Nigeria as a severe violator of religious freedom.”

“When we previously wrote to you, we were met with a response which failed to answer our questions about why the State Department views Nigeria as not having engaged in or tolerated ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom’ or even severe violations of religious freedom,” they said.

In December 2020, the U.S. Department of State designated Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern.

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Nigeria’s inclusion for the first time ever was due to systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom. Violent attacks by Boko Haram and ethno-religious conflict have become more frequent, and are exacerbated by the judiciary system with blasphemy laws.

Nigeria was removed from the list in 2021.

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