The federal government yesterday expressed its readiness to open talks with the United States for the delisting of Nigeria from the religious freedom blacklist.
It also repudiated accusations by the US that it is suppressing religious freedom in Nigeria.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a statement by its spokesman, Mr. Ferdinand Nwonye, said the engagement would afford Nigeria not only the opportunity to demand the country’s removal from the blacklist but to also express its displeasure at Nigeria’s inclusion on the list.
The statement was in reaction to Monday’s decision by the US to add Nigeria to a religious freedom blacklist, which contains countries with severe religious violations.
It blacklisted Nigeria for “engaging in systematic, ongoing, egregious religious freedom violations.”
Although the US did not state why Nigeria was blacklisted, the Secretary of State, Mr. Mike Pompeo, who announced the measure, said his country will continue to act when religious freedom is attacked.
He explained that US law requires such designations for nations that either engage in or tolerate “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.”
Apart from Nigeria, other nations on the blacklist include Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, China, Iran, Eritrea, Myanmar, North Korea, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
The US State Department in its annual report published earlier this year took note of concerns both at the federal and state levels.
The allegation against Nigeria is that it engaged in mass detention of members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, a Shi’ite Muslim group and for disregarding court orders asking it to release the leader of the sect Sheikh Ibrahim el-Zakzaky, who has been in detention since 2015 after a clash between the military and members of the sect in Zaria, Kaduna State.
But the federal government said Nigeria’s religious liberty has never been in doubt and expressed surprise that the US could designate the country as promoting religious intolerance.
The statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the nation remains multi-religious and multi-ethnic as defined by its constitution.
It said: “The Federal Government of Nigeria received the news with surprise, that a secular country under a democratic government would be so designated. Although the Nigerian state is multi-religious and multi-ethnic, the Nigerian constitution expressly states that the government shall not adopt any religion as state religion.
“Furthermore, section 38 of the Constitution [as amended] guarantees that every Nigerian citizen is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion including freedom to change his/her religion or belief and freedom to manifest and propagate his/her religion or belief.”
It reaffirmed Nigeria’s commitment to ensuring the respect and protection of citizens’ right to religious freedom as well as the promotion of religious tolerance and harmony.
In another statement by Minister of Information and Culture, Mr. Lai Mohammed, the federal government described the allegation as a case of “an honest disagreement between the two nations on the causes of violence in Nigeria.”
“Nigeria does not engage in religious freedom violation, neither does it have a policy of religious persecution,” he said, explaining: “Victims of insecurity and terrorism in the country are adherents of Christianity, Islam and other religions.”
The minister said Nigeria jealously protects religious freedom as enshrined in the country’s constitution and takes seriously any infringement on the people’s rights to their faith.