Nov. 22, 2021
Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the countries that the U.S. government considers Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) on account of their having engaged in or tolerated “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.” As is the case with many State Department mechanisms, the CPC list is only helpful if the people in charge utilize it well. With this announcement, the Biden administration is failing to do this.
This year, Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan all made the dubious list. And with good reason.
The Burmese military has been caught shelling churches, detaining pastors, and brutally attacking Christian communities. The North Korean regime detains Christians in political prison camps where they are often subjected to torture. Young Hindu and Christian girls in Pakistan are routinely subjected to forced marriage. These are just a few examples.
But this year, even more noteworthy than the countries that were included on the CPC list is a country whose CPC designation was removed by Blinken after former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated it a CPC last year—Nigeria.
Nigeria could hardly be more deserving of this designation. In the first half of 2021 alone, an average of 17 Christians were murdered for religious identity every day. In the country’s Northeast, Boko Haram and other Islamist terrorist groups routinely target Christian villages, churches, and individuals to be burned, attacked, and slaughtered. Fulani militants in Nigeria’s Middle Belt raid Christian villages, kill defenseless individuals, and take over their land.
Unfortunately, terrorism and religiously motivated attacks are concealed under the surface of the continent’s most populous nation. Elites in cities may try to act like these attacks are not the norm and protect Nigeria’s reputation. But for Christians in rural villages, the fear is palpable.
Nigeria’s religious freedom problems are obvious. In order for Blinken’s removal of Nigeria from the CPC list to be justified, it should have made significant improvements in its religious freedom conditions. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Nothing has changed except U.S. leadership. It’s also significant that the removal of CPC status came one day before Blinken went to Nigeria to visit with state leaders, including President Muhammadu Buhari.
David Curry, president of Open Doors, said the change “is not only a baffling error, it’s likely in direct violation of the International Religious Freedom Act, the law that requires these designations to be made in the first place.”
The CPC designation is the U.S. government’s official “worst of the world” list regarding religious freedom violations. Established by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA), a country’s CPC designation is intended to spur that country to improve its religious freedom conditions. It was meant to be accompanied by sanctions, but most countries are given waivers, supposedly due to America’s “national interest.”
IRFA also established the independent and bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which advises the State Department every year on which countries deserve a CPC designation. Yet, there is often a disparity between the countries that USCIRF recommends and the countries the State Department designates.
Sadly, the State Department continues an unfortunate habit of not adequately using the designation to hold foreign governments accountable for religious freedom violations. Notably, most of the countries on this year’s list are countries with which the United States already has a strained relationship. So, it stands to reason that one more criticism won’t hurt. It costs the State Department very little to call out the obvious religious freedom problems in countries like China, North Korea, Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. However, the State Department declined to designate the additional countries that USCIRF recommended: India, Nigeria, Syria, and Vietnam. These countries deserve more scrutiny from the State Department, and its own annual report proves that.
It’s easy to call out our adversaries, but our allies shouldn’t be exempt from criticism on their human rights records. Friends hold friends to a higher standard, and that should apply to strategic U.S. allies like India and Nigeria.
The fact that the State Department chose to remove Nigeria’s CPC designation, despite ongoing attacks against Christians, shows that the Biden administration doesn’t take religious freedom advocacy seriously enough. This goes against IRFA, which made religious freedom a foreign policy priority, and against decades of American tradition promoting human rights around the world. The Biden administration should swiftly reverse its decision and work with Nigerian leaders to help improve religious freedom conditions.