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US official calls state of religious freedom in Nigeria ‘abysmal,’ says country in ‘slow -motion genocide’

A woman receives Communion during a funeral Mass in the the parish hall of St. Francis Xavier Church in Owo, Nigeria, June 17, 2022. The Mass was for at least 50 victims killed in a June 5 attack by gunmen during Mass at the church. (OSV News photo/Temilade Adelaja, Reuters)

(OSV News) — The chairman of U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, has described religious freedom conditions in Nigeria as “abysmal.”

Speaking July 18 at a House subcommittee hearing on religious freedom, he pointed to the country’s “blasphemy laws and armed attacks on believers that have continued to worsen,” and noted that Africa’s most populous nation is like “a slow-motion genocide.”

The country has maintained its rather unflattering status as a place where it is increasingly becoming harder to live as a Christian, with instances of crime against Christians happening every day and kidnapping of priests seen as organized crimes.

On July 10, Father Joseph Azubuike at St. Charles Parish in the Diocese of Abakaliki in Ebonyi state was abducted, along with three other people, not far from his rectory. The event occurred as he was traveling home from a pastoral engagement. The abductees were led into a forest.

According to the diocesan vicar general, Father Donatus O. Chukwu, the kidnappers demanded $66,000 or, they threatened, the kidnapped priest would be killed. The abductees were however released the following day, without the church having to pay a dime, much to the relief of the religious community.

The chancellor of the diocese, Father Matthew Uzoma Opoke, said it was “a thing of joy that God answered our prayers” and brought about “the unconditional release of his servant in a very remarkable way.”

“We are grateful to God for effecting this release. We are grateful to all those who swung into action on hearing the ugly news of his abduction together with three other persons,” he added in the July 11 statement published on the parish’s Facebook page.

Father Uzoma said Gov. Francis Nwifuru of Ebonyi state played a key role in the release of the hostages, and he thanked the governor “for his determination and concern towards the safety of those who were abducted.”

The kidnapping of the priest is just one of many targeting the clergy and Christians in Nigeria — not all of them have such a happy ending.

According to Father Chukwu, nearly every diocese in Nigeria has reported the kidnapping or killing of a priest.

According to a January report by research organization SB Morgen Intelligence, not fewer than 39 Catholic priests were killed by gunmen in 2022, while 30 others were abducted. The report also showed that 145 attacks on Catholic priests were recorded within the same period.

Attacks on Christians have become worse with the exponential rise in the number of armed groups in Nigeria. A July 18 report by a leading Nigerian human rights organization, Intersociety, indicates that over 50 armed groups — most of them jihadist movements — have sprung up in Nigeria since 2015, targeting Christians.

Nigeria was home to three major jihadist armed opposition groups in May 2015, including Boko Haram, ANSARU (Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa) and Fulani jihadists.

According to the April 10 report by Intersociety, more than 50,000 Christians have been killed in Nigeria over the last 14 years.

“What is happening in my home country, Nigeria, breaks my heart,” Stan Chu Ilo, a research professor of world Christianity and African studies at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University in Chicago, told OSV News.

U.S. lawmakers and religious freedom watchdogs are calling on President Joe Biden’s administration to send Nigeria’s newly elected leader, President Bola Tinubu, a clear message that America takes religious freedom very seriously. They are advocating that Nigeria be designated a “Country of Particular Concern,” which means a nation so designated engages in severe violations of religious freedom under the International Religious Freedom Act. First passed by the U.S. in 1998, IRFA is centered on promoting religious freedom as recognized in international law.

“When I visited Nigeria, we were told that this is a tribal conflict, not a sectarian one, but the killing of priests on holy days shows that religion and theology do play a role,” said Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., during the July 18 House hearing.

Ngala Killian Chimtom writes for OSV News from Yaoundé, Cameroon.

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