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Rights Groups Call for US to Designate Nigeria for Religious Freedom Violations

Women react under the bridge during a march in solidarity with the victims of the Christmas Eve attack, in Jos, Nigeria, Jan. 6, 2024.
Women react under the bridge during a march in solidarity with the victims of the Christmas Eve attack, in Jos, Nigeria, Jan. 6, 2024.

Human rights organizations, including religious groups, are calling on the U.S. government to designate Nigeria as a country of concern for religious freedom. The calls follow a spate of attacks on Christmas Eve in central Nigeria that killed nearly 200 people. But critics say previous designations by the U.S did not solve tensions between Nigeria’s Muslim and Christian communities.

The latest push to designate Africa's largest country over religious freedom violations comes after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a plan this month to designate other countries, including Iran and Russia, for alleged violations.

The petitioners, some 20 organizations — including Advancing American Freedom, Alliance Defending Freedom, and the Hudson Institute — signed a notice this week asking U.S authorities to include Nigeria on the list.

This comes in the wake of brutal Christmas eve attacks in predominantly Christian communities in central Nigeria.

Armed gangs in large numbers attacked residents of Barkin Ladi and Bokkos districts in Plateau state, killing and burning down houses.

Authorities say 195 people were killed and hundreds more were injured from the attacks. Thousands of people also were displaced.

The petitioners also cited a report by the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law that found more than 52,000 Christians were killed in Nigeria's north in the last 14 years.

But critics say previous U.S. labeling of Nigeria as a country of concern did not yield any results.

Lakin Akintola is the director at Muslim Rights Concern, or MURIC.

"We don't consider anything the United States does these days as important. The U.S. has disappointed the world. Whether the U.S. wants to designate Nigeria as a terrorist country or a fundamentalist one or a non-democratic one we don't care,” said Akintola.

In 2019, the U.S. placed Nigeria in its watchlist for religious freedom violations and the following year designated the country over religious killings in the north.

In theory, the designation could have economic implications for the country including loan denials, and higher barriers to exports and trade.

But Luminous Jannamike, a spokesperson of the Christian Association of Nigeria or CAN, said the Plateau attacks were not necessarily religious in nature.

"The Plateau crisis is a cocktail of ethnic, religious and socioeconomic factors. There are hostilities between the Christian and Muslim communities in Plateau. [But] the kinds of attacks and abductions we're seeing this time around, it doesn't seem to have much of that religious coloration. The coloration of these attacks seems to have become something more of ... there's a [general] problem in this country," said Jannamike.

Jannamike said what is more important is for Nigerian authorities to prioritize security of all citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity.

"Let security be improved, let the citizens feel secured irrespective of their backgrounds, religious affiliations, locations...The issue is not whether Nigeria is on the list or not, it has to do with improving security and then ensuring that governance," said Jannamike.

According to Pew Research, Nigeria has the largest Christian population of any country in Africa — more than 80 million.

Human rights groups will be watching to see how things unfold in the future.