- The Washington Times - Friday, May 1, 2009

A congressionally mandated commission has blacklisted Nigeria as one of the world’s worst abusers of religious freedom, in a controversial decision made with dissent from at least one of the panel’s members.

The ranking is linked to the government’s role in religious discrimination and retribution in the large West African country. Although official policies do not encourage or promote such actions, the commission faults the authorities for failing to prevent violence along religious lines.

“The toleration by Nigeria’s federal, state and local governments of systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom has created a climate of impunity, resulting in thousands of deaths,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in its annual report, to be published Friday.

“In late November 2008, hundreds of people were killed and at least 10,000 displaced when ethnic and sectarian violence erupted in the city of Jos, where the number of deaths reached the greatest level in over four years,” it said.

The Nigerian Embassy in Washington did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Because the violence was not caused by the government, commissioner Michael Cromartie disagreed with Nigeria’s designation as a “country of particular concern.” That list includes 12 more countries, such as Burma, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Instead, Mr. Cromartie wanted to keep Nigeria on the commission’s “watch list” of 11 countries, where it had been in the past few years. At least one other commissioner has since changed his mind, but it was too late to affect the designation, officials familiar with the deliberation and voting process said.

They also said that most of the panel’s staff members found the blacklisting unjustified, including staffers who visited Nigeria a month ago. They argued that the problem with the government has less to do with religion than with deeply rooted corruption and inefficiency.

The panel has nine members, but one seat is currently vacant. In order for a country to be included either in the watch list or in the worst offenders list, at least five of the commissioners must vote to do so, which was the result in Nigeria’s case.

“The government of Nigeria continues to respond in an inadequate and ineffectual way to persistent religious freedom violations and violent sectarian and communal conflicts along religious lines,” the report said.

“Other concerns include 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, and discrimination against minority communities of Christians and Muslims,” it added.

The commission sends its recommendations to the State Department, which publishes the official U.S. list of religious freedom abusers and could ask Congress to impose sanctions, though that is not an automatic process. Department officials declined to comment on the prospects of Nigeria’s blacklisting, but experts do not expect that to happen.

Iraq was the last country to be added to the commission’s list in December. The new additions to the watch list are Russia, Laos, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey and Venezuela.