Members of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom were dismayed by the state department's decision last month to remove Nigeria from a list of countries with "severe violations of religious freedom."
The Trump administration had designated Nigeria as a "country of particular concern" one year ago, indicating it had engaged in or allowed particularly severe "systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom."
Prior to December 2020, Nigeria had been on the State Department's "special watch list" for countries that fail to meet that higher threshold but nonetheless engage in or tolerate other "severe violations of religious freedom."
Earlier this year, the commission had recommended that Nigeria remain on the list, arguing that religious freedom conditions there had deteriorated.
The decision to drop Nigeria from the lists is puzzling, according to James Carr, a commission member from Searcy.
"There's just no way you can say that everything's fine now in Nigeria," Carr, a Republican appointee, said. "I think what's happening there is horrible."
Commissioner Fred Davie, a Democratic appointee, also questioned the move.
"It did take some of us by surprise and disappointed us," he said. "We hope the State Department will reassess and maybe recognize the realities in Nigeria for what they are."
NIGERIA NO. 9
Open Doors USA, a nonprofit group which tracks persecution of Christianity around the world, ranked Nigeria as No. 9 on its 2021 list of countries with the most extreme persecution, writing that "more Christians are murdered for their faith in Nigeria than in any other country."
The nation of 219.5 million people, Africa's largest, is split nearly evenly between Christians and Muslims.
In portions of the country, Boko Haram has engaged in widespread terrorism, attempting to overthrow the Nigerian government and replace it with an Islamic state.
According to a report by the International Society for Civil Liberties & the Rule of Law, a Nigerian-based nonprofit group, 43,000 Christians have been killed in attacks over the past 12 years.
"That's twice as many citizens as live in Searcy," Carr said.
Churches have been targeted; many pastors and priests murdered.
Critics say the Nigerian government's response has been insufficient.
Shariah law has also been adopted in some of Nigeria's predominantly Muslim states.
Last year, there was an international outcry after a 13-year-old Nigerian boy was convicted of blasphemy by an Islamic court and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor. The sentence was ultimately overturned by a higher court following appeals from the United Nations Children's Fund, among others.
Also last year, a musician, Yahaya Sharif-Amino, was sentenced to death after an Islamic court found him guilty of blasphemy. Early this year, a high court overturned the verdict.
Atheists have also been targeted by the anti-blasphemy laws.
The Commission last year joined U.N. officials and other human rights activists in denouncing the arrest of Mubarak Bala, president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria. The self-proclaimed atheist was taken into custody after he was accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
The sentence was eventually overturned.
BIDEN administration REMOVED DESIGNATION
The Biden administration removed the designation last month, shortly before Secretary of State Antony Blinken's visit to Nigeria.
In a joint appearance with Blinken in Abuja, the capital city, Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama touted the announcement.
"We appreciate that you have recognized that Nigeria need not be a country of concern as far as religious freedom is concerned. So we welcome that decision by your government," he said.
Tony Perkins, another Republican appointee to the commission and its former chairman, said the administration hasn't offered a clear rationale for the move.
"It's unprecedented that we would see a country [removed from the list] that has shown no improvements. In fact, you could argue that conditions have worsened in Nigeria," he said. "For the government to take them off of their list of countries where religious freedom is at risk is troubling."
In a written statement Wednesday, U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., also objected to the change in policy.
Since taking office in 2015, the lawmaker from Little Rock has highlighted the plight of religious minorities facing persecution.
"Protecting religious freedom around the world is a pillar of U.S. foreign policy and I'm concerned with the U.S. Department of State's decision to remove Nigeria from the list of countries of particular concern as a violator of religious freedom, especially after they reported on Nigeria's religious freedom violations earlier this year. Further, the timing of the decision to remove Nigeria just days before Secretary Blinken visited the country to announce a multibillion-dollar development assistance deal is suspect, and the decision is counterproductive to the long-term growth of democratic institutions around the world," he said.
In an email Wednesday, a state department spokesman said Blinken had "determined that the state of religious freedom in Nigeria did not meet the legal threshold to justify Nigeria's continued designation as a Country of Particular Concern."
The Secretary had also determined that the "state of religious freedom in Nigeria did not meet the legal threshold to justify Nigeria's inclusion on the Special Watch List," he added.
"We have concerns about the religious freedom dynamics in Nigeria. The Department will continue to work with the government to address religious freedom issues to ensure that all human rights are protected, including the freedom of religion or belief," he said.
"The Secretary takes into consideration all relevant information available in conducting his annual review of designations," he said. "Religious freedom is a key U.S. foreign policy priority and plays a prominent role in our continued engagement with the Nigeria government."
'APPALLED' BY DECISION
In a news release, the commission said it was "appalled" by the decision.
The State Department did acknowledge that Boko Haram is interfering with religious liberty, designating the terrorist organization as an "entity of particular concern."
While expressing concern about the delisting of Nigeria, Carr and Davie praised the decision to add Russia to the list of countries of particular concern.
The country has intensified its persecution of members of the Jehovah's Witnesses, outlawing the church and imprisoning members who continue to meet and worship.
In addition to Russia, nine others were designated as countries of particular concern: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
The commission had recommended adding India, Vietnam and Syria to the list; the State Department declined to do so.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was established by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Its members are appointed by the president and congressional leaders from both parties.
It describes itself as an "independent, bipartisan federal government entity established by the U.S. Congress to monitor, analyze and report on threats to religious freedom abroad." The commission "makes foreign policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and Congress intended to deter religious persecution and promote freedom of religion and belief."