Why Is the Biden Administration Overlooking Nigeria’s Jihadi Attacks on Christians?
Note: This is the conclusion of our two-part series on Christian persecution in Africa (read part one). Here we specifically focus on the ongoing jihadi attacks in Nigeria… and beyond.
Radical Islamists are continuing their lethal aggression across Africa, as we reported last week, often targeting individual Christians, their churches, and communities. Christians in Africa’s largest nation, Nigeria, have fallen victim to jihadi terrorism since the early 2000s. Such attacks have ranged from individual murders of pastors and priests to widespread massacres of Christian towns and villages.
Nowadays, church services are frequently targeted, whether Anglican, Catholic, or interdenominational Protestant. And the results are not only multiple deaths but orphaned, raped, and often mutilated survivors.
Too often the attacks take place without forewarning; at other times the threat is made public. For example, on July 23, 2023 Britain’s Premier Christian newsletter posted a warning to some specific Christians in Nigeria, “A church with the name St Mary Catholic Church at a region called Osun region is again targeted for attacks. People close to this church must be made to understand the situation. 23rd July as a date given, we urge everyone out there to get this message across to the church and its management.”
Every month — nearly every week — dozens of Nigerian Christians are being killed in ongoing attacks. On June 22, Christianity Today reported that at least 450 Christians had been killed since May 2023.
“Christian death tolls include at least 300 in several attacks in Plateau state spanning May 15–17, according to reports from Morning Star News (MSN) and CSW (Christian Solidarity Worldwide); more than 100 in attacks spanning May and June in Benue state, MSN and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reported; and 43 in Nasarawa state in mid-May, MSN reported. Tens of thousands were displaced, according to MSN and CSW. Whole villages, dozens of church buildings and thousands of homes reportedly were destroyed. Grain was looted.”
To cognizant observers around the world, it has long been painfully clear that the ongoing epidemic of killing, maiming, and torching churches and Christian villages in Nigeria are religiously motivated. And yet, again and again, we see “official” reports that the killings are the result of “climate change” and “global warming.” These arguments are not only empty excuses for international maneuvering and inaction, but they are largely inaccurate.
Henrietta Blyth of Open Doors UK and Ireland explains, “For years now, academics, politicians and major western NGOs in the west have downplayed the role of Islamist extremism in this slaughter. Instead, they have focused on ethnicity or climate change, both factors. But when I speak to women or men whose families have been butchered or villages burned down, they are clear. They know who is persecuting them and why. Why are we erasing their voices?”
Baroness Cox, a life-peer in Britain’s House of Lords, has labored for decades to address and improve the dangerous circumstances faced by Nigeria’s Christian believers. She has repeatedly traveled to visit the victims of violence, and she has established long-term friendships with local clergy and church leaders. Ms. Cox has long expressed her frustration with the international community’s flimsy excuses for inaction against the ongoing Islamist terrorism. She explains:
“We should listen to the victims. No-one who meets and speaks with the people of the Middle Belt can doubt the accuracy of their conclusions. Religious identity is assuming a frightening importance, where once it was of little notice. The charity Open Doors calculates that today, Nigeria accounts for 89 per cent of all violent deaths of Christians killed worldwide. Nigeria is becoming a nest for jihadist terror, threatening the stability of the whole region — and one day, Europe.”
Intersociety (The International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law), an indigenous human rights watchdog group, recently reported that 5,068 Nigerian citizens were massacred “for being Christians” in 2022, with 1,041 slaughtered in the first 100 days of 2023. They reported:
“Since the 2009 Islamic uprising, 52,250 Christians and 34,000 moderate Muslims have been butchered or hacked to death. … [President Muhammadu] Buhari’s radical Islamism since 2015 has killed 30,250 Christians and attacked 18,000 churches and 2,200 Xian schools. … Since 2009, 14 million Christians have been uprooted and forced to flee their homes and 800 Christian communities attacked.”
The attacks and subsequent seizing of property in Nigeria are sometimes categorized as “land-grabbing facilitated by ethnic cleansing.” Although ethnicity may at times be a factor, the violence should more accurately be identified as religiously motivated terrorism. Unfortunately, the Biden administration removed Nigeria’s “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) designation — an essential tool in U.S. foreign policy — even as the bloodshed there has continued to surge.
On July 18, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) summed up Nigeria’s human rights violations at the Congressional Subcommittee on “Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations on the Dire State of Religious Freedom Around the World.”
“I have seen firsthand the aftermath of Boko Haram’s destruction of churches and mosques. While on paper Nigeria has robust protections for all religions, violations of religious freedom are escalating. Extremist groups like Boko Haram and ISIS West Africa commit indiscriminate violence against those they consider to be infidels. In the Middle Belt, Fulani Muslim extremists target and kill predominantly Christian farmers in brutal raids.
I have been alarmed to see the government’s deliberate Fulanization of Nigerian institutions, encouraging ethno-religious supremacism, and I cannot overstate the need to respect ethnic and religious pluralism in the country. I was shocked that the State Department failed to designate Nigeria as a Country of Particular Concern in 2022 and was shocked when Secretary of State Blinken removed Nigeria as a CPC country in November of 2021.”
Although Boko Haram has been identified for years as a prominent source of jihadi violence in Nigeria, it has in recent years been largely absorbed into ISIS — specifically ISWAP: Islamic State West Africa Province. The Council on Foreign Relations explains, “A splinter faction of the original Boko Haram was active until 2021, when ISWAP killed its leader, absorbed its territory, and relegated its members to remote islands in Lake Chad. ISWAP has since established control of northeastern Nigeria and parts of Niger.”
Meanwhile, recent research by the International Center for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) has determined that the Islamic State “has been a primary factor leading to the overall rise in jihadist violence in the continent over the past several years.”
According to ICCT’s June 2022 report:
“Since the beginning of 2022, the Islamic State has conducted half of its claimed global operations in Africa; during the first four months of 2022, the Islamic State claimed more operations in Nigeria than in Iraq. … The statistics are grim: the prevalence of jihadist-linked violence in Africa has risen an astounding 17-fold since 2009. … Resultantly, Africa has emerged as a centre of gravity for the Islamic State, and indeed, it is precisely the rise and significant spread of the Islamic State in Africa that has led Africa to arguably serve as the new global epicentre of jihadi terror.”
As Christians with specific concern for our fellow believers in dangerous places, such reports will no doubt cause us to reflect, pray, and reach out in every possible way to those churches, pastors, and others we are able to assist.
As Americans, many of us are troubled about the inexplicable disregard our government has displayed toward the violence in Nigeria and beyond. In 2001, jihadi violence did not stay in the Middle East or Afghanistan: it reached New York’s World Trade Center.
And today, ISIS’s brutal attacks are exploding expansively across Nigeria and throughout Africa. Why is the Biden administration ignoring Nigeria’s jihadi attacks on Christians?
Lela Gilbert is Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom at Family Research Council and Fellow at Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom.