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Religious Persecution in Nigeria Is Getting Worse

The Biden administration should heed criticism, reverse course, and do more to stop the religious persecution occurring in Africa’s largest democracy.
Alliance Defending Freedom
The Nigerian flag waves in the wind

The past year has shown a shocking increase in religious persecution, particularly against Christians, in Nigeria. Thankfully, the U.S. Congress and international bodies are now giving the crisis the attention it deserves, even as the Biden administration has been derelict in its duties to protect religious freedom worldwide.

The day after Christmas, I began receiving messages from my lawyer friends in northern Nigeria. Images of villages razed to the ground, bodies being stacked. Over the Christmas season last year, at least 200 Christians were massacred in central Plateau State in Nigeria in apparently coordinated attacks. Over the following week or two, the number of dead climbed past 300.

A report came out shortly afterward revealing that in another state in Nigeria, Benue, over 500 had been murdered by militants over the previous three months. Catholic Bishop Wilfred Anagbe, of Benue's Makurdi Diocese, has recently been showing video of the aftermath of these attacks to members of Congress who will watch and listen. A machete attack on a human body is not an image that easily leaves one's mind.

These attacks against Christians have been going on for years, but 2023 reached new heights of violence. One report released in February counted over 7,000 Christians targeted and killed for their faith in Nigeria last year alone. Many had been attacked by established terrorist groups like Boko Haram and the Islamic State-West Africa, but the majority of killings were carried out by these unaffiliated militants.

While Christians face regular massacres in the North, draconian blasphemy laws continue to be wielded against religious minorities who disagree with the prevailing Islamic views of the majority in northern Nigeria.

One young man, Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, has now been imprisoned for four years for alleged blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. He is from a minority Sufi Muslim sect in Kano State and shared some song lyrics on WhatsApp that others found disagreeable. So they burned his house down in 2020, and he was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death. While his conviction was eventually overturned because he was not afforded a lawyer, he has been ordered to a retrial where he would face the same death penalty. He is now awaiting his appeal at the Supreme Court of Nigeria to overturn the blasphemy laws as unconstitutional and a violation of international law.

Another woman, Christian mother of five Rhoda Jatau, was imprisoned for 18 months with only the barest access to lawyers and her family at court hearings. She was accused of blasphemy for allegedly sharing a video that condemned the lynching of another Christian woman, Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu. Her neighborhood was also subject to attacks by a mob. Only after overwhelming public outrage in Nigeria was she released on bail in December, although the charges against her have yet to be dismissed.

Despite these outrages, the Biden administration has looked the other way. The Trump administration placed Nigeria on its annual list of violators of religious freedom in 2020, but for the past three years, the White House has inexplicably kept the country off the list, preventing any real accountability for the atrocities happening regularly in Nigeria.

Congress, however, is stepping in where the Biden administration has withdrawn. The House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee passed a resolution on Nigeria last month that highlights the outrageous targeting of Christians in the country and the prisoners of conscience held on allegations of blasphemy. The whole House should quickly vote on and approve this resolution.

In the Senate, a bipartisan group of senators released its own resolution just last week on international religious freedom, repeatedly highlighting Nigeria for its religious freedom violations. These violations include attacks from non-state actors targeting both Christians and Muslims engaged in allegedly "un-Islamic" activities, as well as the government's enforcement of blasphemy laws in its criminal and Sharia-based legal codes.

The rest of the world is waking up to the horrors occurring in Nigeria. In the last year, the European Parliament has condemned Nigeria's blasphemy laws and the prosecutions of Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, Rhoda Jatau, and others, and condemned the brutal attack that occurred over Christmas.

The situation in Nigeria has reached a fever pitch. The Biden administration should heed all of this criticism, reverse course, and do more to stop the religious persecution occurring in Africa's largest democracy.

But with all of this increasing pressure from abroad, will the Nigerian government listen? Simple measures would go a long way. End the impunity for attackers by increasing security and prosecutions. Get rid of the blasphemy laws that encourage mob violence and punish victims. One can only pray that the mounting pressure from abroad and within the country will spur drastic changes in law enforcement and security in Nigeria.

Until then, Congress and the world should continue to raise their voices and highlight the deadly consequences of the attacks on Christians and the atrocious blasphemy laws of Nigeria. The victims are crying out for help.