The United States must act to stop what is aptly described as a genocide of Christians in Nigeria, including appointing a special envoy to address the crisis, a group including former NFL tight end Benjamin Watson and retired Congressman and religious freedom expert Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) said Wednesday during a press conference in Washington, D.C.
Colson Center President John Stonestreet and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) joined Watson and Wolf during the streamed event, sponsored by the International Committee on Nigeria (ICON).
Pressure has mounted recently on the Trump administration to more aggressively address the violence that has claimed some 60,000 Christians in the last 15 years and more than 1,200 in the first six months of 2020.
In addition, an estimated 2 to 3 million people have been displaced by the violence committed by the ISIS-affiliated terrorist group Boko Haram and militant Muslim Fulani herdsmen. There are reports of widespread hunger and health needs among the displaced, who are often living in squalor.
Some observers have referred to the Nigerian crisis as a “potential genocide,” but Wolf, a longtime champion of religious freedom and human rights, told the press conference in absolute terms, “Genocide! Genocide is taking place in Nigeria.”
Boko Haram, which was once affiliated with al-Qaida before pledging allegiance in recent years to ISIS, has added to genocidal murder “crimes against humanity and against children, especially girls it kidnaps to become sex slaves.” It also turns boys into child soldiers, Wolf says, and terrorizes authorities. Fulani Herdsmen have also wreaked havoc, especially in rural Christian villages and on farms in the Middle Belt of Africa’s most populous nation, at 206 million people.
Watson, a Christian who has become a significant social media influencer and who speaks often on issues of race, culture and the sanctity of human life, along with Wolf and Stonestreet, called on the White House to appoint a special envoy to Nigeria.
“I can remember several years ago it being impressed upon me that the Body of Christ here in the United States is dealing with our own issues,” Watson said. “But compared to what is going on around the world in many respects, we need to be people who stand up for those who are being persecuted. At some time, it may be us. And Heaven forbid, when that time comes for us here in the United States, that we didn’t stand up when we had a chance to stand for those around the world.”
Watson recalled that he first became aware of the plight of Nigerian Christians, when in 2014 Boko Haram kidnapped 276 school girls from Chibok, Borno state, bringing a momentary flurry of social media awareness and even drawing attention from first lady Michelle Obama.
“Now today, six years later, more than 100 of those girls are still missing and the hashtags and the social campaigns have ceased.”
That case, Watson said, is one of thousands of killings, kidnappings, church and village burnings and rapes that have occurred.
“We are at a time of racial reckoning in our country,” Watson said. “The term ‘justice’ is thrown around a lot. But if we’re sincerely concerned about justice, we must understand that justice must be advocated for at home, yes, but also abroad. Violations of justice and human rights are a threat to all of us.”
Watson said the appointment of a special envoy to Nigeria and the Lake Chad region to address the violence would also include coordinating “an international response to this crisis.” His call was echoed by Wolf, who said such an envoy would work with U.S. ambassadors in neighboring African countries because the violence is spilling beyond Nigeria’s borders.
Stonestreet, who followed Colson at the Christian worldview ministry named for him, said his concern is rooted in the Biblical truth that every person is created in God’s image and has inherent dignity as well as rights including religious liberty.
“Religious liberty is not only a human reality,” Stonestreet said, “it is a privilege to steward so that those of us who are enjoying the blessings of the sort we have in the United States have a responsibility.”
Echoing Wolf and Watson’s call for a U.S. special envoy, Stonestreet said that given the promise to defend religious freedom offered by President Trump and Vice President Pence in 2016, “we need to see that promise carried forth with action for the U.S. government.”
Wolf, Stonestreet said, was “absolutely correct” in calling the killings in Nigeria genocide by the definition of the international community. “It qualifies under every single angle.”
In her statement, Gabbard didn’t explicitly call for a special envoy, but the Democrat, often a maverick in her party, called the Nigerian situation a “systematic slaughter” that must be opposed. “Too often, these attacks go unnoticed,” she said, noting that the estimated 60,000 people whom Islamists have killed in Nigeria in the last 15 years is more than what ISIS killed in Iraq and Syria combined.
Above: (Left-right) U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Benjamin Watson and retired Congressman Frank Wolf during a press conference sponsored by the International Committee on Nigeria.
Screen capture: facebook.com/ICONhelp