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NEW YORK – As the persecution of Christians in Nigeria continues, a member of the U.S. government’s international religious freedom watchdog has urged the State Department to designate Nigeria a “Country of Particular Concern,” and recommended the appointment of a Special Envoy for Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin.

United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Commissioner Frederick Davie told Crux the moves would center religious freedom progress as a key priority in the U.S-Nigeria relationship.

“A CPC designation for Nigeria would provide more opportunities for additional programmatic and diplomatic support to improve respect for religious freedom in the country,” Davie said in a statement.

“This designation would also allow for more targeted sanctions against religious freedom violators or government officials and authorities who pursue blasphemy charges to deter religious freedom.”

On the recommendation for the State Department to appoint a Special Envoy for Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin, Davie added that the move would “prioritize religious freedom progress and funding for a dialogue on blasphemy laws and legal protection support for individuals charged with blasphemy.”

USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal commission that monitors and reports on religious freedom to the U.S. government and Congress. Based on its findings, each year it recommends countries for the State Department to designate as CPCs, which can be accepted or ignored.

The commission has called for Nigeria to be on the CPC list every year since 2009 citing blasphemy charges and convictions against Christians by the state, and targeted violence against them from non-state actors like the extremist groups Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP).

The State Department put Nigeria on the list in 2020, but chose not to redesignate it in 2021. USCIRF Chair Nury Turkel in December said there is no justification for Nigeria’s lack of designation, saying the commission is “tremendously disappointed that the Secretary of State did not implement our recommendations and recognize the severity of the religious freedom violations” in Nigeria.

The State Department did not respond to Crux requests for an interview or statement on Nigeria.

One of the latest acts of violence against Christians in Nigeria came Jan. 15, when attackers shot dead and then set on fire Father Isaac Achi of Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Kafin-Koro, in the Paikoro region of Nigeria’s Niger State. A second priest, Father Collins Omeh, the parish’s parochial vicar, was hospitalized with gunshot wounds after the attack.

Davie called the attack “abhorrent.” Fellow USCIRF Commissioner Frank Wolf commented after the attack that the U.S. government should designate Nigeria a CPC “for engaging in and tolerating particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”

On Jan. 24, the Pontifical Charity Aid to the Church in Need published excerpts from the Achi’s funeral service at the Minna Cathedral in Niger that was delivered by Father Samuel Gwimi.

“Like every other death of a loved one, the exit of Father Achi is a very painful one,” Gwimi said.

“First, is the pain of losing someone who has been a very loving and generous father to all who came to him,” he continued. “Father Achi’s generosity and hospitality knew no bounds. The way he was gruesomely, brutally, and wickedly killed makes it even more painful and leaves us all searching for answers and reasonable explanations.”

A recent Aid to the Church in Need report revealed that Nigeria had four priests killed in 2022, as well as 28 priests and seven religious sisters kidnapped.

The same day as the attack against the Catholic priests 25 worshippers were kidnapped from a Protestant Church service in Northwest Nigeria. Four days later, at least 11 people, most of them Catholics, were killed when an alleged Fulani Herdsman attacked a village near a refugee camp in the Makurdi Diocese.

The spate of violence follows a violent December for Christians in Nigeria. Days before Christmas, 40 Christians were killed in terror attacks in the northern Nigerian state of Kaduna. Back in June, 40 people were killed when ISWAP militants attacked St. Francis Catholic Church in Ondo State.

After the attack, Father Athanasius Abanulo, a Nigerian priest based in America who was visiting family in Nigeria at the time of the attack, told Crux that the country needed international intervention.

“If there is any help from any part of the world, we need it,” Abanulo said. “We need help in terms of whatever it takes to come and intervene militarily and otherwise. I’m asking, we are praying, whatever it takes for world leaders to come to the help of especially Christians.”

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg