House Foreign Affairs Committee approves Smith resolution calling on Biden to designate Nigeria as one of world’s severe religious freedom violators
The House Foreign Affairs Committee this week approved legislation (HRes 82) authored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) that calls on the Biden Administration to designate Nigeria as one of the world’s severe religious freedom violators, teeing it up for a vote on the House Floor.
Smith’s resolution rejects the Biden Administration’s decision to omit Nigeria as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) in its 2021, 2022 and 2023 International Religious Freedom Reports despite widespread religious persecution including mass murder and kidnapping plaguing the country. The Trump Administration had designated Nigeria as a CPC in 2020.
The historic International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998 was authored by former Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia and created the CPC designation for foreign governments with egregious religious freedom records that fail to act or are complicit. After a nation is put on the CPC list, serious sanctions including economic penalties can be imposed pursuant to IRFA.
According to Smith, “the Nigerian government has enabled widespread murder and violence through indifference and a gross failure to protect victims and prosecute Islamist terrorists.”
“On Christmas Eve, over 300 Christians died from targeted attacks—and none of the perpetrators of this set of coordinated attacks in Nigeria’s Plateau State have been held to account,” said Smith, Chair of the House Global Human Rights and International Organizations Subcommittee, who chaired a hearing on the State Department’s failure to designate Countries of Particular Concern, including Nigeria, in the International Religious Freedom Report in July 2023.
“It is unconscionable that Nigerian President Tinubu—sworn in May 2023—has not even acknowledged the religious motivations for these attacks,” said Smith.
According to the religious freedom watchdog Open Doors, more than 5,000 Christians were murdered in Nigeria in 2022, accounting for nearly 90 percent of Christian deaths worldwide. Over 52,250 Christians have been slaughtered in Nigeria since 2009 according to Vatican News.
“Secretary of State Blinken has not seriously addressed these terrorist attacks either—even in his recent joint press remarks with the Nigerian Foreign Minister, the Secretary only extended condolences for the Christmas Eve slaughter,” said Smith, who noted the presence of religious leaders in the audience during the Foreign Affairs debate on the bill—including Bishop Wilfred Anagbe of the Diocese of Makurdi and Pastor Akila Yusef—representing believers and pastors in Nigeria who have been targeted in the attacks.
“When you go where they are in the camps…it’s difficult to console them, to support them, to share with them, to fear with them, and it’s every day other people are coming in,” said Bishop Anagbe, adding that the poor conditions make the children especially vulnerable to human trafficking, child labor, and organ harvesting.
Pastor Yusef said: “As…President of The Cutting Edge Ministers Network leading over 200 Pastors & Leaders in the Middle Belt Region of Nigeria who face violence and are being slaughtered because of our religion, this bill is very important to us as it will serve as legislation to hold our government accountable for the millions of lives facing existential threat from the extremists.”
Earlier this year, Secretary Blinken once again refused to redesignate Nigeria as a CPC, prompting the Chair and Vice Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to say: “There is no justification as to why the State Department did not designate Nigeria or India as a Country of Particular Concern, despite its own reporting and statements….”
At a July 2023 hearing chaired by Smith, Abraham Cooper—the Chairman of USCIRF—testified that in Nigeria, religious freedom conditions have remained abysmal, with state and nonstate actors committing particularly severe violations against both Christians and Muslims: “It clearly meets the CPC standard under IRFA—as evident in the State Department’s own IRF report, released in May 5th.”
“Unfortunately, the US State Department is not using all the tools provided to hold guilty parties accountable,” said Smith, who authored the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, which was enacted into law in 2016 and strengthened the US government’s hand against authorities and non-state actors who violate religious freedom.
“The recent attacks, which targeted Christian villages beginning on December 23rd and continuing through Christmas Day, left Christian communities in Nigeria’s Plateau state reeling,” said Smith. “We must combat these atrocities and stand united for religious freedom and against the persecution of innocent people everywhere.”