Nigeria's persecuted Christians need help from U.S., ERLC says

WASHINGTON (BP) -- Voices from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean are calling for the United States government to do more to protect Nigeria's Christians from the Islamic terrorist organization Boko Haram.

Nigerian Christian leaders requested American help on a recent visit to Washington, and the Southern Baptist Convention's public policy entity urged members of Congress to support legislation requiring the State Department to report on whether Boko Haram qualifies for classification as a "foreign terrorist organization" (FTO).

Last year, more than 765 churches were destroyed in the country, a Nigerian spokesman said.
Boko Haram and its associates have killed more than 1,000 people in the west African country during the last 18 months, according to the State Department. Boko Haram took credit for July 7-8 attacks that killed about 100 members of the Church of Christ in Nigeria, including 50 who had taken refuge in a pastor's home, according to Open Doors News. Last year, more than 765 churches were destroyed in the country, a Nigerian spokesman said.

Speaking at a July 12 Washington briefing, the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) said the problem is a "jihadist, fundamentalist ideology."

Boko Haram "basically is a group that believes Nigeria should operate on Shariah law," Ayodele Joseph Oritsejafor said. "And they want to turn Nigeria into a Muslim country -- by force. And that's what they've always said."

The militant group has said, "[I]f Christians want peace in Nigeria, they must accept Islam, because Islam is the only religion," Oritsejafor told participants at a briefing sponsored by the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom.

The Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) hand-delivered a July 12 letter to 100 members of the House of Representatives to ask them to cosponsor the Boko Haram Terrorist Designation Act, H.R. 5822. The proposal calls for the secretary of state to explain why Boko Haram does not meet the criteria for FTO designation, if that is the department's decision.

"With Boko Haram seemingly intent to establish Shariah law in Nigeria by any means, explicitly targeting Christians in its murderous campaign to do so, we believe the State Department must do more to quell this violence," ERLC President Richard Land said in the letter.

In June, the State Department designated three Boko Haram leaders as "specially designated global terrorists." That was a "minimal step," said Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom, at the July 12 briefing.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said at a July 10 hearing he chaired that the Boko Haram attacks on Christians "are unprovoked and unconscionable. People of all faiths -- and all people of goodwill -- must demand immediate action against this terrorist organization," according to his prepared remarks. During the hearing, he challenged the testimony of a State Department official.

Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of state over the Bureau of African Affairs, pointed to poverty as a reason for the group's reign of terror. "Boko Haram thrives because of social and economic problems in the north that the government must find a way of addressing," Carson said, according to Voice of America (VOA).

Smith -- chairman of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights -- refuted that reasoning.

"Ideology that is highly, highly radicalized may exploit poverty at times, but poor people do not necessarily become terrorists and killers," Smith said, VOA reported. "That is an insult, frankly, to poor people."

In his prepared remarks to the subcommittee, Oritsejafor said, "By refusing to designate Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization, the United States is sending a very clear message, not just to the federal government of Nigeria, but to the world -- that the murder of innocent Christians, and Muslims who reject Islamism ... are acceptable losses."

The United States is aiding Nigeria in its security efforts by providing police, as well as training in forensics and investigative measures, Carson said, according to VOA.

"The U.S. policy right now is that more money needs to be given to the Muslims to de-radicalize them" because of poverty, said Emmanuel Ogebe of the U.S. Nigeria Law Group at the July 12 briefing.

FTO designation requires an organization's activity be a threat to U.S. security or that of U.S. nationals. In January, James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, said in congressional testimony there are fears Boko Haram "is interested in hitting Western targets, such as the U.S. Embassy and hotels frequented by Westerners."

Problems between Christians and Muslims have existed in Nigeria for more than 50 years, Oritsejafor said at the briefing. They are rooted in such causes as land disputes and the sharing of government power, according to Open Doors News.

Christians make up at least 60 percent of the population, but there has been a "lot of discrimination" against them, Oritsejafor told briefing participants.

"The Christians in Nigeria have not been given credit for the fact that they have not retaliated," Ogebe said.

Nigeria is Africa's most populous country with about 170 million people. It also is the continent's No. 1 oil producer.

The ERLC letter went to representatives who had yet to cosponsor H.R. 5822 and are members of the Judiciary Committee, the International Religious Freedom Caucus or a Southern Baptist church. Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., is the bill's sponsor.


Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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