By Simon Lewis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Washington on Wednesday removed Nigeria from its list of countries with religious freedom concerns, just a day before Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in the country as part of a tour of Africa.
The omission drew a sharp rebuke from a U.S. government commission that had recommended the Biden administration keep Nigeria as a so-called country of particular concern for engaging in or tolerating violations of religious freedom.
Blinken made an annual announcement on Wednesday of the countries on the list, naming Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as countries of particular concern. He also placed Algeria, Comoros, Cuba and Nicaragua on a watch list for religious freedom, and designated armed groups, including Islamic State and several of its affiliates, as entities of concern.
Blinken is expected to arrive in Abuja on Thursday, where he is set to meet with officials including President Muhammadu Buhari and deliver a speech on U.S. Africa policy.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment, and it was unclear if the designation was related to the secretary’s travel.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in April recommended that Nigeria remain on the list, citing “violence by militant Islamists and other non-state armed actors, as well as discrimination, arbitrary detentions, and capital blasphemy sentences by state authorities” in the country.
The commission, which had also recommended that India, Syria and Vietnam be designated as countries of concern, said in a statement that it was “appalled” by the removal of Nigeria.
“We urge the State Department to reconsider its designations based on facts presented in its own reporting,” Chair Nadine Maenza said, referring to the department’s report on international religious freedom in May, which cited religious freedom concerns in Nigeria.
(Reporting by Simon Lewis; Editing by Leslie Adler)