Nigeria Must Be Held Accountable for Christmas Day Attacks

By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich

Beginning on the night of Dec. 23, a series of terror attacks in 26 Christian communities in the Nigerian state of Plateau took the lives of as many as 200 people. The governor of Plateau, Caleb Mutfwang, said the assailants used “heavy weapons” to carry out the “well-coordinated” attacks that lasted through Christmas Day. 

The horrific violence and devastation that occurred amidst what should have been a joyous religious holiday is unimaginable. Although the identities and motives of the gunmen have yet to be confirmed, Jo Newhouse, spokesperson for Open Doors operations in sub-Saharan Africa, said, “We can only go on what we know has been happening in this region over an extended period of time.”

As Newhouse pointed out, “We know that mostly Christian farming communities have been suffering attacks by Fulani militants over many years now. While the blame for the attacks usually falls on issues like climate change, ethnicity, [socio-economic factors] or politics, the religious element to these attacks should not go unrecognized.”

While criminal activity, terrorism, violent clashes over resources, and ethnic tensions contribute to the horrific killings, kidnappings, and brutality plaguing Nigerian communities, religious tension is also a driving factor of violence in the country.

More than half of Nigeria’s population is composed of predominantly Christian Igbo and multifaith Yoruba groups in the south and predominantly Muslim Hausa and Fulani groups in the north. According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, “Ethnonationalist fighters in Nigeria have politicized religion and attacked civilians based on ethnoreligious identity.”

The dangers for Christians are particularly high. Open Doors ranked Nigeria as number six on its World Watch List. As the organization noted, in Nigeria, more Christians are killed for their faith than in all other countries combined. 

Additionally, Nina Shea, senior fellow and director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, said, “Nigeria has become increasingly lawless where crime is rampant yet there is also an obvious pattern of attacks against Christian leaders, their churches, and entire Christian villages.”

Since 2009, nearly 17,000 churches have been burned and attacked. Further, in the last two years, 100 Catholic priests have been kidnapped in Nigeria – and 20 were murdered. 

Notably, the latest Christmas attacks mirror the 2022 Pentecost massacre in southwestern Nigeria, which targeted Christians on a religious feast day. On June 5, 2022, in what Africa analysts called a “carefully planned” attack, gunmen opened fire on worshippers at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church and killed dozens of the faithful.

Recently, the ongoing violence and targeting of Christians, particularly Catholic priests, evangelical pastors, and Methodist bishops, prompted more than two dozen human rights advocates to sign a letter calling on Congress to urge the State Department to designate Nigeria as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). Endorsed by 29 signatories, the Dec. 12 letter to the U.S. Congress said, “As religious freedom advocates and proponents, and leaders of grassroots organizations with millions of American members, we appeal to you to urgently respond to the Department of State’s failure to adequately address egregious, systematic, and ongoing religious persecution in Nigeria.”

Under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, a CPC is defined as a nation that has “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” It is a designation reserved for the world’s worst violators of religious freedom.

In December of 2020, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Nigeria as a CPC for the first time. However, in November 2021, ahead of a visit to Nigeria, Secretary of State Antony Blinken removed Nigeria’s CPC designation. 

On Jan., Secretary Blinken announced the latest CPC designations. Nigeria was again absent from the list.

For defenders of religious freedom, this decision by the Biden administration is an outrage.

The recent Christmas attacks underscore the urgency of holding the Nigerian government accountable for its longstanding failure to ensure the religious freedom and security of Christian Nigerians. 

Citing the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the letter said that the Nigerian government has “routinely failed to investigate these attacks and prosecute those responsible, demonstrating a problematic level of apathy on the part of state officials.” 

In the wake of the latest attacks against Christians, the Biden administration must hold Nigeria’s leadership accountable for being among the world’s worst violators of religious freedom.