Welcome to the first issue of Religious Freedom and Global Security News, a project of the International Committee on Nigeria (ICON).
COVID-19 has stopped the world in its tracks – and yet, religious persecution continues at an alarming rate. Last month, terrorists in Nigeria killed approx. 250 innocent people. That’s more than 8 people killed each day, on average, and far more than the total number of COVID-19 deaths in Nigeria, as of May 18.
This newsletter will report on what’s happening with respect to religious persecution – and what still needs to happen – to stop this trend and why.
In today’s issue:
- Religious Persecution Today / During COVID-19
- US Senator Charles Grassley Speaks Out / A Special Envoy to Nigeria
- USCIRF’s 2020 Annual Report
- The Global Impact of Genocide / A National Security Issue
- President Buhari Deceiving Nigerians and International Community
- Next Steps
Religious Persecution Today / During COVID-19
Long before COVID-19 became a household name, religious persecution had become a troubling reality, with increasingly tragic results worldwide. Torture, kidnapping, imprisonment, slavery, trafficking, and even death are among the issues running rampant as people of faith face seemingly endless attacks.
Studies by domestic international organizations have found that Christians are the most widely persecuted religious group in the world. According to a report by Open Doors USA, more than 260 million Christians live in places where they experience high levels of persecution.
Pew Research Center says that Nigeria is among the countries with the largest reported increase in religious violence by organized groups since 2007. The country is currently ranked the 12th worst in the world in terms of Christian persecution.
In December, the country was placed on the State Department’s “special watch list” of countries that tolerate or engage in severe violations of religious freedom.
Even as the world turns its collective attention toward stopping the spread of COVID-19, terrorists in Nigeria are not letting up. Instead, they are exploiting the crisis.
- On March 24, Boko Haram killed ninety-two Chadian soldiers in an ambush around the Lake Chad area; and
- At least forty-seven Nigerian soldiers died in northeastern Nigeria in an ambush by Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA) fighters.
As governments shift military personnel to support the COVID-19 response, Nigeria will be even more vulnerable to these types of attacks.
To make matters worse, it’s being reported that Christians are receiving the leftovers of government aid – while Muslims receive greater relief support, especially in areas governed by Sharia law.
The senseless killing and discrimination of innocent Nigerian Christians must stop.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) (gettyimages-10417463081)
U.S. Senator Charles Grassley Speaks Out / A Special Envoy to Nigeria
U.S. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) is among those paying attention to the atrocities taking place in Nigeria. On May 13, he sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback saying, “I am concerned about a rise of communal violence in Nigeria that disproportionately affects Christians in the country, particularly in the Northeast and throughout the Middle Belt.”
In his letter, the Senator asks for information, including information about the appointment of a special envoy to Nigeria, to ensure “that Christians and other religious minorities in Africa’s most populous country are safe from persecution” which he says will prevent the further destabilization of the Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel, and is consistent with our nation’s values and interests.
Senator Grassley’s support for a special envoy to Nigeria was good news for the International Committee on Nigeria (ICON). Leaders of the organization launched a global campaign to turn the eyes of the world to Nigeria’s “Silent Slaughter”.
They add their voices to the growing chorus advocating for action, and specifically – for a special envoy – that is gaining momentum.
On January 27, 2020, more than 140 non-government organizations, faith-based groups, policy experts, and others delivered an open letter to President Trump and his administration to continue to urge a U.S. Special Envoy to Nigeria and the Lake Chad Region.
Calls for the envoy began months ago, with groups like ICON, Save the Persecuted Christians (STPC), lending their voices to the cause. Their calls were heightened following news that Rev. Lawan Andimi was beheaded by Boko Haram after refusing to deny Christ. That same month, Pastor Denis Baguari of the Lutheran Church of Nigeria, a well-known political advocate for Christians, was reportedly killed in a night attack; and the Islamic State released a video of an 8-year-old child soldier killing a Christian man in Nigeria and another showing the beheading of 10 Christian aid workers.
Tony Perkins (USCIRF Chairman) with Rebecca Sharibu (Leah’s mother)
USCIRF’s 2020 Annual Report
The ongoing atrocities in Nigeria are detailed in the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)’s just released 2020 Annual Report, which provides recommendations on U.S. foreign policy. The report is critical for two reasons:
- Nigeria is included as a “Country of Particular Concern” for its egregious violations of religious freedom; and
- Leah Sharibu, who has been in captivity for more than two years, is included as a Prisoner of Conscience
Among other things, the Nigeria report includes the individual views of Commissioners Gary L. Bauer and Johnnie Moore who state that, “it is our conviction that Boko Haram, and those tribesmen inspired by them, intend on ethnically cleansing Nigeria of any Christian it cannot subjugate while threatening everyone that stands in their way, whatever their religion or ethnicity.”
This confirms Nigeria is failing her citizens to provide freedom of religion and basic protection and confirm the need for action.
ICON released a statement on the report that Breitbart’s Thomas D. Williams, PhD, highlighted in a piece titled, Committee Calls for U.S. Special Envoy to Nigeria to Stop the ‘Silent Slaughter’ of Christians:
“terrorist groups like Boko Haram have perpetrated ‘unspeakable violence’ against unarmed and undefended Christian communities over the past decade, and the persecution has gone from bad to worse, resulting in a “silent slaughter.”
“Tens of thousands of innocent lives have been lost, the vast majority of them women and children,” the group said. “Thousands of churches have been torched. Entire communities, villages, and towns have been devastated. Millions have been kidnapped or displaced from their homes following persecution.”
The Global Impact of Genocide / A National Security Issue
The need for action is critical.
While this genocide may seem worlds away, the effects are vast and far-reaching, and will be felt far into the future. If things go from bad to worse in Nigeria and the country implodes, the consequences will not be contained by the country’s borders. Indeed, there is very much at stake here.
Journalist John L. Allen, Jr recently said:
Nigeria is an emerging African superpower, it’s the largest oil producer in Africa with proven reserves of 37 million barrels (10th-largest in the world), and it’s also the country with the world’s largest mixed Muslim/Christian population. If things go bad, the consequences won’t be confined to Nigeria’s borders, but could spark economic, military and cultural upheaval around the world.
Sooner or later, the international community will be forced to recognize that the fate of Nigeria’s Christian population isn’t just a human rights issue – though it’s certainly that – but also a major global security concern.
Sadly, we’ve been here before.
When the United Nations was confronted with warnings of an impending genocide in Rwanda, experts did nothing effective. At least 800,000 people died as a result of the crisis.
Four years later, U.S. president Bill Clinton went to Rwanda to apologize for the U.S. government’s failure to act. He said in part:
The international community, together with nations in Africa, must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy. We did not act quickly enough after the killing began.
We must not let history repeat itself. Action is needed in Nigeria now.
President Buhari Deceiving Nigerians and International Community
In case we need another reminder why swift action is critical in Nigeria, Christian teenager Leah Sharibu was kidnapped by Boko Haram during an attack on her school more than two years ago. More than 100 girls were taken along with Leah – and while five of the girls perished and the rest released through back-channel efforts, Leah remains in captivity. Although unconfirmed, it’s been reported that the devout Christian has been forced to accept Islam, marry a Boko Haram commander, and gave birth to a baby boy earlier this year.
This month, Leah celebrated her 17th birthday – the third birthday in captivity. While President Buhari has vowed to redouble efforts to save Leah and the other girls, Leah’s parents have recently said the Federal Government has been deceiving Nigerians and the international community with promises of rescuing Leah from captivity.
A spokesperson for the Sharibu family said, “It seems that the government simply wants to make Nigerians and the international community who demand the release of Leah to be quiet.”
Sadly, Leah’s story is not the only tragic one coming out of Nigeria. There are a number of girls still held captive from an April 2014 attack on a boarding school in Chibok and attacks are ongoing.
We need to bring Leah and all of the missing girls home.
Read more on Leah’s story here.
The Nigerian government has shown it will not take action on its own accord. The U.S. government must do everything in its power to help stop this crisis before it goes from bad to worse.
Stephen Enada (ICON President)
About the International Committee On Nigeria (ICON)
ICON is a consortium of Nigerians and other nationalities who have combined efforts to help Nigeria. Our mission is to create a community where rule of law guides every facet of societal interactions in Nigeria. ICON promotes human dignity, the right to live, religious freedom, and the protection of the vulnerable against all forms of persecution.
For more information on ICON, visit www.ICONhelp.org.
For more information on ICON’s Silent Slaughter campaign, visit www.SilentSlaughterNigeria.com.
IRIGWE GENOCIDE: The Slaughter of a People
Irigwe-land is under attack. The past few years have seen an increase in, and more coordinated, attacks by the Fulani militants that have slaughtered her people.
The Irigwe people group has resided in Nigeria for centuries. They are predominantly Christian adherents and were the origin of Christian missions in the Middle-Belt and North since Roland Bingham arrived in the late 1800s.
They are believed to be a small people group with a population between 100,000. Primarily residing in Bassa Local Government of Plateau State, which is in the perilous middle-belt region of Nigeria.
Recently, coordinated attacks that lasted two weeks (Mar 30th to Apr 14th) led to nearly 30 deaths when Fulani militants attacked four villages. There were reports that local residents received a warning of an imminent attack and notified authorities, but it went unheeded. Then, within hours, women and children, and dozens of homes were razed. They exerted destruction to over 75 homes, 2 churches (along with a Pastor), and displaced hundreds.1
Prior to that, there was a systematic attack on eighteen villages in Irigweland that lasted five weeks (Sep 7th to Oct 17th 2017). An estimated 80 people lost their lives, over 200 farms were devastated and nearly 1,000 homes destroyed.2 It was during that same period, when 29 people were lured into a vacant school by security forces only to be abandoned and slaughtered when Fulani militants arrived.3
Locals say the Army troops are not effective and the Police are ill-equipped to respond. It is rather disturbing to know that the distance from the Army Barracks (3rd Div) to these Irigwe villages is not more than 35-40 km. Albeit majority are on dirt roads, but locals insist that the longest it should take is an hour.
Now, State and Federal programs are trying to alleviate the spread of COVID-19. Meanwhile, Irigwe people in Plateau State continue to be slaughtered. Since 2017, over 330 people have been killed, over 4,000 homes razed and 2,600 farms destroyed.
Local, State and Federal government response has been shameful and the military continues to be negligent in their handling of the situation. This genocide must be stopped.
2 Rural Youth Integral Support Initiative, from report titled “Irigweland Genocide Humanitarian Response Team”
Genocide is taking place in Nigeria.
Boko Haram has killed over 27,000 civilians, more than ISIS killed in Iraq and Syria combined. According to the Global Terrorism Index, Nigeria is the world’s third most dangerous country after Afghanistan and Iraq.
For over twenty years, Nigeria has been experiencing a silent slaughter of genocide. The International Committee On Nigeria (ICON), along with the International Organisation for Peace-building and Social Justice (PSJ), have collected and organized data from reputable sources.
These sources include Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLEDdata.com), Nigeria Security Tracker (CFR.org), Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START.umd.edu/gtd). And our own app users (see “Data Notes”).
We strived to report all the accurate details and wide- ranging incidents. Yet, this endeavor was met with the challenge to verify incidents and reflect correct categories.
We determined to classify the main “Actors”, but had to verify incidents but also had to make assumptions. It is obvious that incidents and deaths have increased, but the evidence is critically clear that the killings in Nigeria increased considerably.
The conflict: thousands have been killed; hundreds of thousands more displaced
The silence: from the Nigerian
government, limited to no local and international press, no public
The complexity: religious, ethnic, environmental, political, and geographical elements – misrepresented as a simple “local land dispute”
In Nigeria, 60,000 people have been brutally killed since 2001. Radicalized extremists, such as Boko Haram and Fulani militants, are carrying out a bloody campaign against the poor and rural populations, who are predominantly Christian.
It’s time to stop this silent slaughter.
IT’S TIME FOR A RALLYING CALL
1. Fulani militants are 6 times deadlier
than Boko Haram
The 2019 Global Terrorism Index states that 2,040 people were killed by radicalized Fulani militants in 2018 alone. That makes this conflict six times deadlier than Boko Haram’s insurgencies in the same year.
2. Indifference is not an option
Nigeria faces an extreme risk of civil unrest in 2020. The attacks by Fulani militants on local farming communities are a major security concern with potential global humanitarian repercussions like human trafficking, forced mass immigration, and major human rights violations.
We need an organized, coordinated action plan to give a voice to the voiceless, to stabilize the country, and ultimately, to bring peace to Nigeria. Indifference is no longer an option.
3. Urge the authorities to act
It’s time to join us in our movement for justice. We are calling on our local governments to put pressure on the Nigerian government to take action. They must work to stop the escalating violence and put an end to this silent slaughter–once and for all.
Frequently Asked Questions
How did the conflict start?
The Fulani population is mostly Muslim and represents the world’s largest nomadic herding group. They are dispersed across West Africa, but in Nigeria, the Fulani are mainly concentrated in the northern states, with a strong tradition of migrating from one area to another.
While the conflict over land use has occurred for years, in the last ten years specifically, it has been exacerbated by radicalized religious undercurrents, as well as environmental factors like drought and climate change.
While Christians are not the only victims of these atrocities, the estimates of Christian victims are staggering:
- 88% of Fulani attack victims in Nigeria’s Benue State were Christians
- 75% of victims in Nasarawa State were Christians
- 70% of victims in Taraba State were Christians
What is the magnitude of the slaughter happening in Nigeria?
In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies estimated that by January of 2020, more than 60,000 people had died since 2001 in herder and farmer-related violence in Nigeria. Thousands have been injured in the attacks, and hundreds of women have been kidnapped. The conflict has led to large-scale displacement, where 300,000 people were displaced in 2018 alone, and a high poverty rate. Radicalized Fulani militants have burnt down countless homes and churches and seized large swathes of property. With 2,040 people killed in 2018, this conflict has become Nigeria’s most serious security challenge. The global humanitarian repercussions that will follow are yet to be seen.
Why doesn’t the Nigerian government stop the bloodshed?
President Buhari’s administration has remained silent so far about the slaughter of thousands of religious minorities in Nigeria. A vast majority of them are undeniably Christian. The persistent silence from the Buhari government is further encouragement to Fulani militants to pillage and occupy land but also to kill anyone who resists. The government’s response to most incidents reinforces the Fulani as a group of attackers without criminal repercussions.
How can you help us raise awareness?
We must put pressure on the Nigerian government to break the silence, but we need your help to spread the word. Please support our mission by signing the petition and sharing it with everyone on social media. Let’s speak up for the people of Nigeria.
Sign the petition demanding President Muhammadu Buhari take concrete action. Let’s put an end to this silent slaughter.
Thomas Jefferson wrote what he considered to be the greatest accomplishments of his life, the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in 1777, where he said people have a “natural right” to worship God according to the dictates of their consciences. James Madison would use this statute as a model while drafting the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The sentiment carried forward nearly two centuries later, when Religious Freedom Day was first proclaimed in January 1993. Past presidents have used this occasion to ask Americans to take time to reflect and to remember the rights they enjoy by living in a country where they can worship freely.
Last year, President Trump broadened the discussion, using the occasion to call attention to all those suffering at the hand of religious persecution around the globe. He was right to do so. The harsh truth is that mass violence and religious conflict continue at an alarming rate. As Religious Freedom Day 2020 passes, we are reminded that countries like Nigeria, Iran and Afghanistan need strong action taken against the terrorist groups committing this violence if the persecution is to stop.
I have spent more than two decades working on projects to address these issues in Nigeria, specifically. While the country rarely makes international headlines, Nigeria ranks highest in religion-related social hostilities among the 25 most populous countries in the world. The unfortunate truth is that for far too long, too little has been done to address the escalating violence, which is playing out along in ethnic and religious fault lines. The result has been a state lacking a swift and consistent response on Boko Haram. The same can be said for policies around violence in the Middle Belt from Fulani extremists.
As a result, since 2015, the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust estimates that more than 6,000 Christians have been killed in Nigeria (1,000 in 2019 alone) and as many as 12,000 more have been displaced from their homes. In July of last year, the Jubilee Campaign, an international human rights nongovernmental organization, wrote a report to the International Criminal Court stating that “the standard of genocide has now been reached” in Nigeria.
Douglas Burton, a former State Department official who publishes news investigations of terrorism in Nigeria recently described the slaughter of Christians in Nigeria as the former Congressman Frank Wolf has described it: “a genocidal crisis of our age.”
The true extent of the ripple effect of the mass killings taking place at the hands of the terrorist organizations responsible, including humanitarian issues, human trafficking and economic strife in the region, among others, may never be captured in simple statistics. There too much, it goes too far and too deep to capture everything. That’s why action is so critical. That, and inaction against these terrorist groups only embolden them to take more extreme actions.
Religion is central to how Nigerians understand themselves. As such, the meaningful protection of religious rights — through the rule of law and inclusive governance — will be critical for long-term stability in Nigeria.
We can certainly understand that.
As a nation founded by those fleeing persecution, religious freedom is not just an essential government decree we enjoy. It’s woven into our very nature that was passed down to us by our colonial ancestors. It’s an idea Americans have fought fervently for at home and abroad for centuries.
As Americans we know religious freedom is an inalienable right given to every man no matter nationality. It’s time that we as a country take a stand and hold these radical groups accountable for their crimes against mankind and end the violence happening in countries like Nigeria.
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