(CNSNews.com) – A Christian legal group in the United States is urging the Nigerian government to take action in response to the deaths of almost 200 Christians and attacks on more than 500 churches after elections in Africa’s most populous state last April.
The appeal by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) followed a three-month investigation across Nigeria’s restive shari’a belt – the 12 northern states where Islamic law has been implemented since the late 1990s.
The ACLJ said the May-July investigation found similar patterns of attacks in all 12 states where the worst of the violence had occurred.
On Sunday came news of more bloodshed – three people killed and eight wounded when gunmen opened fire on a Christian village in Kaduna state, one of the worst-hit areas in the post-election violence. The Associated Press quoted a state police official as saying no arrests had been made.
Muslims account for around 50 percent of Nigeria’s 155 million people, while about 40 percent are Christians.
Last week the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent statutory bodies that advises the executive and legislative branches, urged the Obama administration to designate Nigeria – as well as Pakistan, Vietnam, Egypt, Iraq and Turkmenistan – as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) for religious freedom violations.
USCIRF chairman Leonard Leo made the call after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton named as CPCs the same eight that were designated by the Bush administration in early 2009 – Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.
CPCs are countries whose governments either perpetrate or condone “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” abuses of religious freedom. The U.S. may impose sanctions or take other diplomatic steps to encourage improvements.
According to the USCIRF’s most recent annual report the Nigerian government “has failed even to attempt to stem” escalating cycles of violence between Christians and Muslims.
Leo expressed disappointment that the commission’s earlier recommendations had not been taken into account, and urged Clinton to act.
The Washington-based ACLJ, whose stated goal is to protect religious and constitutional freedoms, echoed the call.
“We agree,” said chief counsel Jay Sekulow late last week. “It’s time for the State Department to update this list. When it comes to religious freedom, the world deserves to know which countries are the worst offenders.”
Reporting on its Nigerian mission, the ACLJ cited some “specific instances of extreme prejudice against people of faith.”
In one, Muslims singled out a lone Christian missionary in a taxi and dragged him to a mosque where, after repeatedly demanding that he renounce his faith they gouged out his eyes and stabbed him before setting him alight.
In another, a woman died in hospital from third-degree burns sustained when her home was torched. The first hospital she was taken to turned her away.
The ACLJ said it found cases of police indifference or worse.
“In Kano state, a church secretary ran to a police station three times for help when Muslim youths converged on his church office,” it said. “The police refused to respond and, as a result, the Muslim youths systematically burned 15 churches. The Muslim youths returned several days later to finish off one building they had missed.”
“In Jigawa state, a senior police officer visited a conclave of Christian churches and promised them protection. Moments later, while he was still within the vicinity, a band of attackers besieged the churches and burnt them in full view of the police. After protests by the pastors, some of the suspects were arrested; however, the police immediately released the suspects,” ACLJ reported.
The fact-finding mission also found evidence of a backlash in one state, Kaduna, observing that mosques that had been burnt in Christian areas there.
“Reprisal attacks occurred in some communities while defensive actions were carried out in others,” it said. “As a result, Kaduna has the worst overall impact with thousands of people losing commercial and personal property and tens of thousands across the north displaced.”
In May, the Nigerian government set up a panel to look into the causes of violence that erupted around the April election, won by President Goodluck Jonathan.
ACLJ commended the government for appointing the panel, but noted that earlier government investigations over “the last quarter century of sectarian persecution” had achieved little.
It urged the authorities to investigate and punish cases of law enforcement complicity or inaction, compensate victims quickly, and “promptly and diligently prosecute offenders to end impunity in the worst cases of religious discrimination cloaked as political protests.”
The government should also “clearly redefine rules of engagement during civil strife to ensure the protection of civilian populations, especially vulnerable and endangered minorities,” it said.
“It is very disturbing to find that Christians were specifically targeted and in many instances killed because of their religious beliefs,” said ACLJ executive director Jordan Sekulow.
“At a time when Christians face persecution in so many parts of the world, it’s important that Nigeria step up and take the corrective action necessary to ensure that the religious and civil rights of Christians are protected.”