WASHINGTON—The leader of Nigeria’s 80 million Christians traveled to Washington this week and called on the United States to intervene on behalf of persecuted believers in his embattled country.
Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill Thursday morning before holding a midday press conference to decry the largely unchecked violence in Africa’s most populous country.
“America has a strong history of civil rights and my hope is that our brothers here can awaken the conscience of humanity to stop this genocide,” Oritsejafor said at the National Press Club.
The Islamic group Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is sinful,” is primarily responsible for the violence. Its leader, Abubakar Shekau, has said the group will not stop its attacks until Shariah law is instituted across the entire country, instead of only in the northern states.
According to a conservative Associated Press estimate, last year Boko Haram killed about 800 people in hundreds of attacks. The U.S. State Department named it the second-most dangerous terrorist organization in the world (the Taliban was first) and last month issued a $7 million bounty for the capture of Shekau. But so far, the U.S. has refused to name Boko Haram a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), even though it has issued five such designations since the beginning of 2012 to lesser groups.
“If [Shekau] is a terrorist, what about his organization?” Oritsejafor asked. “You cannot separate a leader from his organization.”
On Thursday, Alliance Defending Freedom, the Family Research Council, the American Center for Law and Justice, and eight other organizations submitted a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging him to designate Boko Haram an FTO. Nigeria advocates also started a White House petition with a goal of gathering 100,000 signatures.
Earlier this year, Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, filed a bill that would designate Boko Haram an FTO—which Great Britain did this month. FTO designation would freeze any U.S. assets, institute a travel ban for group leaders, and allow authorities to trace financing and weapons trails. The Nigerian military seized a cache of Hezbollah weapons in May. Risch said in a statement that it is clear Boko Haram meets the criteria of an FTO and is putting U.S. citizens in danger.
The Risch bill has seven cosponsors, all Republicans, but the effort has yet to gain traction with the State Department, which seems to think the problem is an economic one, rather than theological. Emmanuel Ogebe, a human rights attorney based in Washington, said the State Department has declined to give “any clear and compelling reasons” for refusing the designation.
“[State officials] seem to indicate there are good parts of Boko Haram and bad parts of Boko Haram, so they don’t want to alienate the good parts,” he said. “It’s hard to see the good in a group going to schools and killing kids.”
Oritsejafor noted that once all the churches in some areas were destroyed, the terrorists turned their deadly attacks toward schools. He said 50 of the 175 schools in Borno state have now been destroyed.
The country's president, Goodluck Jonathan, declared a state of emergency in late May for Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe states, and Oritsejafor said the declaration improved the situation in those areas. Still, he noted—pausing to brush back tears—the attacks continue and his organization has lost two officials in the last two months, including a personal friend of his, Faye Musa Pama, secretary of CAN’s Borno chapter and coordinator of outreach for widows and orphans.
In March, the Christian Association of Nigerian-Americans (CANAN)—CAN’s American counterpart—announced a $50,000 donation to the victims of Boko Haram. Oritsejafor said financial help is critical because “CAN has no money” (he is unpaid and financed his own trip to the U.S.) and is unable to help victims and churches with medical bills and rebuilding efforts. He said the Nigerian government has promised but not delivered assistance to victims—and the U.S. has not offered any humanitarian assistance.
Oritsejafor said about 70 percent of Christian deaths in 2012 were in Northern Nigeria and the church is suffering because of it: “Church attendance in the north is down drastically, [and] it’s beginning to creep into the south.” He said some churches that once had 500 members now may have 30 on a good day, and some pastors will leave their wives and children at home to risk their lives and sit at a church site alone. Some churches have started using metal detectors at entrances, but seeing them scares some people away.
Oritsejafor criticized President Barack Obama for slighting the country by not visiting on his trip to Africa earlier this month. Nigeria is the largest U.S. trade partner in the region, but Obama instead went to Tanzania, South Africa, and Senegal, where he unsuccessfully advocated for the legalization of homosexuality. “America’s ambivalence on Nigeria is a stunning betrayal,” Oritsejafor said.