(by Emily Belz, WorldMag.com) WASHINGTON – The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom [USCIRF] released its annual report Friday advising the U.S. State Department of nations with “ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom,” adding Nigeria to the notorious list titled “countries of particular concern [CPC],” which also includes Iran and North Korea.[View a map of Africa and Nigeria at worldatlas.com.]
The report argued that the Nigerian government’s response to sectarian strife has been “inadequate and ineffectual . . . resulting in thousands of deaths.”
In November of last year several hundred Muslims and Christians died in clashes in the country following an election. About half of Nigerians are Muslim, and 40 percent are Christians.
Similar clashes in February killed about a dozen. More have died in past years. Reports of the imposition of Islamic law, Sharia, on the local level, also posed a concern to the commission. Two commissioners visited Nigeria in March and April to assess the situation-the country had already been on the commission’s “watch” list, a level down from being one of its countries of particular concern (CPC).
“We have listed Nigeria for seven years in the report; there’s nothing new about our interest,” said Felice Gaer, who chairs the commission.
The new pronouncement on Nigeria by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) elicited objections from two of its nine commissioners. One, Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a President Bush appointee (see interview from the May 9, 2009, WORLD), argued that hanging the blame for religious strife in Nigeria on the government is a bit overzealous, since the government is dealing with poverty, high unemployment, ethnic hostilities, and religious tensions.
“Under these difficult circumstances, it’s doing the best it can,” said Cromartie. The other objecting commissioner did not publish his name.
But the commission’s report argued, “Nigeria could, if it wished, muster the resources and capacity necessary to address communal, sectarian, and religious violence and intolerance. It is among the most economically prosperous countries in all of Africa.”
While the country is rich in oil, the majority of its citizens live in poverty. The wealth from oil only benefits a small percentage of the population.
“It has the economic capacity if it so chooses to address these instances,” said Leonard Leo, one of the commissioners that traveled to Nigeria. “This is a country that in our view has the capacity to do better.”
Leo believes that the government, working with aid from the United States and the European Union, can make necessary reforms.
USCIRF made another controversial condemnation in December, adding Iraq to its CPC list. Four commissioners objected to that decision, on grounds that insurgents were fomenting religious strife, not the government (see “Condemning an ally?”). The State Department did not follow USCIRF’s recommendation to add Iraq to its list of CPCs, an unsurprising decision since the agency has so many resources invested in the success of the current government of Iraq.
This summer the commission plans to travel to India, another country under scrutiny, and intends to deliver a separate report on that country’s status this summer.
The State Department hasn’t followed many of the commission’s recommendations-the commission’s CPC list has 13 countries, the agency’s has eight.
“No State Department wants to add countries to a violators list,” explained Gaer, adding that the labels can interfere with private diplomacy. “It shakes up the diplomatic establishment.”
CPCs often face economic sanctions, like cutbacks in American aid. Eight countries are currently on that list, published in January: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.
Copyright ©2009 WORLD Magazine, Web Extra posted May 1, 2009. Reprinted here May 5th with permission from World Magazine. Visit the website at www.WorldMag.com.
1. What is the purpose of the International Religious Freedom Act passed by Congress in 1998? (see “Background” below for the answer)
2. a) For how many years has Nigeria been on the USCIRF’s watch list?
b) How did Nigeria’s status change in this year’s report?
3. For what reasons has Nigeria been named a CPC by USCIRF?
4. Two of the USCIRF’s nine commissioners objected to the new status for Nigeria. For what reason does commissioner Michael Cromartie oppose the new designation?
5. How did the commission’s report disagree with commissioner Cromartie’s estimation of the Nigerian government’s ability to stop the religious violence and intolerance?
6. a) Why did 4 of the 9 commissioners object to USCIRF naming Iraq to its CPC list?
b) Why did the State Department refrain from naming Iraq to its CPC list?
c) Why does the State Department not follow all of the USCIRF’s recommendations for the CPC list?
7. Which country will the Commission issue a separate report on this summer?
8. How effective do you think the State Department and USCIRF CPC list is? Explain your answer.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to monitor the status of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief abroad, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related international instruments, and to give independent policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and the Congress.
Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) (Public Law 105-292) to promote religious freedom as a U.S. foreign policy goal and to combat religious persecution in other countries. The law created an Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department, headed by an Ambassador-at-Large. That office is responsible for issuing a report on religious freedom and persecution in all foreign countries by September 1 of each year. On the basis of that report, the State Department designates “countries of particular concern” for their “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” violations of religious liberty. The law identifies the wide range of diplomatic and economic tools that the President can apply to those countries. To assist the President, the law recommended creation of a special advisor on international religious freedom as part of the National Security Council staff. The law also created the Commission on International Religious Freedom [USCIRF] and required it to issue an annual report each May 1. The Commission expires in September 2011.
There two reports – the U.S. State Department’s report and the USCIRF report – on international religious freedom. The reports have different purposes. The State Department’s report is a country-by-country analysis of religious freedom. The USCIRF report covers select countries, and makes policy recommendations to the executive and legislative branches of government. The USCIRF report also critiques the work of the State Department in promoting international religious freedom.
(from the USCIRF’s 2009 report found at uscirf.gov/images/AR2009/ar%202009%20final%20with%20cover.pdf):
The response of the government of Nigeria to persistent religious freedom violations and violent sectarian and communal conflicts along religious lines has been inadequate and ineffectual. Years of inaction by Nigeria‘s federal, state and local governments has created a climate of impunity, resulting in thousands of deaths. In March-April 2009, the commission traveled to Nigeria to assess religious freedom conditions in the country.
-an ongoing series of violent communal and sectarian conflicts along religious lines
-the expansion of sharia (Islamic law) into the criminal codes of several northern Nigerian states
-discrimination against minority communities of Christians and Muslims
Therefore, the Commission, for the first time, is recommending that Nigeria be designated as a country of particular concern, or CPC, for tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.
View a map of Africa and Nigeria at worldatlas.com.
Read the Universal Declaration of Human rights proclaimed by the United Nations in 1948 at
Visit the USCIRF website at uscirf.gov/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2387&Itemid=1. (As of May 5, the website list of CPCs has not been updated to reflect the 2009 report.)
Read the State Department’s report on Human Rights in Nigeria (published yearly in February) at