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(LifeSiteNews) — A recent report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has sought to portray the Nigerian Fulani Muslims as the victims of religious persecution at the hands of the government and Nigerian Christians rather than the perpetrators of the extremely violent persecution of the Christians in the country.

The report, which is contradicted by documented evidence and testimony from native Nigerians, has drawn sharp criticism from U.S. advocates for religious liberty for the Christians of the area.

Sean Nelson, legal counsel for the religious liberty advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, said the report “fails to explain the broader context of religiously motivated violence against Christians, where they are suffering thousands of deaths every year because of their faith.”

“The report rightly speaks against using an overly broad brush when discussing the Fulani Muslim community and militancy within it, but then proceeds to imply with false moral equivalency and little evidence that the broader Christian community is responsible for large portions of the violence,” Nelson stated. “The international religious freedom community would benefit from an explanation as to how the report was produced and approved, and USCIRF should consider a retraction.”

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USCIRF claims Fulani Muslims do not espouse jihadist beliefs and are persecuted by Christians

The USCIRF report downplayed the participation of Fulani Nigerians in “militant Islamic activity,” claiming that associating Fulani Muslims with jihadist beliefs was an “unfounded” assumption.

The report stated that “as militant Islamist activity has increased, including by groups who include some fighters of Fulani descent, regional governments and Christian communities equate entire groups of Fulani Muslim civilians with Salafi jihadist beliefs because of their Muslim faith and marginalized identity and therefore consider them legitimate targets for violence and human rights abuses … These dynamics have made Fulani Muslim civilians vulnerable to attack and abuse from many different actors in west and central Africa on account of their ethno-religious identity or their beliefs. The relative roles that religion and ethnicity play in each incident of Fulani Muslim targeting vary. In Christian-majority contexts like CAR, southern Nigeria, and coastal West African countries, religion plays a stronger role.”

USCIRF continued, “In recent years, government forces in several countries have participated in or encouraged violence against Fulani Muslim civilians. Much of this violence is based on ethnoreligious identity or has used religious days or sites to strategically target Fulani Muslim civilians, often due to unfounded assumptions that Fulani Muslims are more likely to be associated with Salafi jihadist beliefs.”

The report claimed that these “unfounded assumptions” have been the cause of Fulani violence, which it said were acts of retaliation against Christians for the abuse suffered at their hands. “Violations against Fulani Muslim civilians have also had indirect consequences for Christian civilians, as abuses have led some members of Fulani communities to arm themselves and conduct reprisal attacks based on ethnoreligious identity.”

The report also claimed that the Fulani are the victims of displacement from their land due to “xenophobic rhetoric and policies,” and false assumptions on the part of Christians. The report stated, “In addition to facing violence, Fulani Muslims have also been subjected to forced displacement due to xenophobic rhetoric and policies … In both CAR and Nigeria, government policies have yielded forced displacement of Fulani Muslims from Christian majority areas.”

“In southern Nigeria, Christian communities often interpret Fulani Muslim ambitions to increase their political representation in decisions regarding land policy as religiously motivated attempts to ‘Islamize’ the country. Many reporters and advocacy organizations imply that ethnonationalist fighters in northwest Nigeria receive federal government support because they share a common religious identity and supposed religious agenda with the Muslim-dominated security forces. However, there is no evidence of such a link, and most Fulani Muslims in Nigeria express disappointment in how their marginalization continued under the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. Fighters associated with predominantly Christian communities and ethnic groups have used these narratives to foment ethnoreligious violence against Fulani Muslims, including against civilians.”

The USCIRF concluded that it is Fulani Muslims who are suffering religious persecution at the hands of Christians due to the “unfounded perceptions” that they espouse jihadist beliefs. The group wrote, “Across west and central Africa, anti-Fulani bias is fueling religious freedom violations. Governments have deliberately attacked Fulani Muslim civilians based on ethnoreligious identity and targeted days and sites of religious significance to commit abuses against Fulani Muslims, often driven by unfounded perceptions that Fulani Muslim civilians are inherently associated with Salafi jihadist beliefs and therefore legitimate targets for violence. In Christian majority areas, some governments have also contributed to xenophobic sentiment and passed policies that have disproportionately displaced Fulani Muslims from their land.

Catholic bishop says Fulani Muslims are engaged in ethnic cleansing against Christians

However, many voices in Nigeria, including its Catholic bishops, have said the opposite for several years. In 2021, at an event organized by religious advocacy group Aid to the Church in Need, Bishop Wilfred Chikpa Anagbe of the Diocese of Makurdi in Nigeria’s Benue State said of the attacks on Christians by militant Fulani herdsmen, “The attacks have become so frequent that some families have suffered multiple displacements as even designated IDP camps sometimes come under attacks … The intensity of the killings suggests an ethnic cleansing agenda,” he declared.

Contrary to the claims of the USCIRF report, Angbe detailed that the Fulani, motivated by religion, were “systematically” murdering local populations and then occupying their territories. “The killings have a motive of religion behind it. The Fulani killers are Muslims and the conquering of territory is paramount to large Muslim populations in Nigeria,” the bishop said.

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Detailed report tracks extreme Fulani violence toward Christians

The final report of the Nigerian Atrocities Documentation Project (NADP), tracking the persecution of Christians in Nigeria quarterly from January 2022 to February 2023, overwhelmingly contradicts the USCIRF report in its claim that the Fulani Muslims are the victims rather than the perpetrators of religious violence.

The NADP report, drawn from firsthand testimony, documentation, and expert research, stated that in Nigeria “Christians are subjected to the Sharia law, mob killings, forceful conversion to Islam, violent extremism, kidnappings, rape, child labour, human trafficking, and other human rights-related abuses. But the various arms and tiers of the government have shown complacency amid the increasing rate of these forms of violations against Christians.”

Contrary to claims that the Fulani are being displaced by the Christians, NADP stated that “Christian indigenous farmers in Northcentral Nigeria find it difficult to carry out agricultural activities because Fulani herdsmen attacks are driven by an ideological thrust of universal ownership of lands across the Sahel Region, as opposed to state ownership and legislations such as the anti-open grazing law in states like Benue. To this effect, many Christians (in states like Benue, Plateau and Nasarawa) have been displaced from their ancestral homes and are living in IDP camps and neighbouring host communities.”

“Fulani herdsmen attacks on Christian communities in the Northcentral persist due to the lack of functional migratory laws, increased armed acquisition by herdsmen, and the lack of security presence especially in rural communities, and as a reaction to the ban on anti-grazing laws in some states like Benue. Tagging these attacks as a conflict between Fulani herders and indigenous farmers is but concealing the true religious dimensions of the attacks.”

Detailing the attacks of the Fulani Muslims, NADP wrote, “About 200 houses were burnt on Sunday 20th March 2022 from the attack by suspected Fulani militia in Agban in Kagoro Chiefdom, Kaura Local Government of Kaduna State … Largely, Fulani herdsmen activities in the Northcentral region are a form of terrorism aimed at killing Christians and not a conflict between Christian indigenous farmers.”

“In Benue state, no fewer than 23 persons have been killed by suspected Fulani herders in the Mbadwem and Tiortyu communities of Guma and Tiortyu Local Government Areas. The attack which occurred on Monday, 11th April 2022, came barely after two weeks when 3 persons, including a pastor, were murdered by the same Fulani herdsmen on 29th March 2022, at Waku village. Pastor John Torbee Ajav was shot by Fulani herdsmen on his way to attend a religious function in Gbajimba LGA. The governor of the State described the attacks on some communities in the state as ethnic cleansing of the Tiv nation (who are predominantly Christians) by Fulani Muslims, blaming the government for neglecting his people.”

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NADP continued, “Armed Fulani herdsmen continue to attack Christian Communities and religious leaders, killing many and going scot-free … Herdsmen have killed 60 Persons in Taraba and displaced about 120,000 and many properties were destroyed within two months of the continuous attacks on Ussa, part of Takum and Yangtu development areas of Taraba State by suspected herdsmen.”

Declaring the real motive behind the violence to be a religious zeal “to depopulate Christians” in Nigeria, the NADP wrote, “These attacks do not suggest a conflict between Fulani herdsmen and indigenes of Taraba – who are 90% Christians – over land resources, as often projected by the government and secular INGOs, blocs and research institutions. If anything, they reveal the level of unchecked religious extremism exhibited by Fulani herdsmen to depopulate Christians in the state and take hold of its resources for the advancement of Fulani cum Islamic dominance in Northern Nigeria and even beyond.”

Even local news reports have acknowledged the religious motives behind the Fulani atrocities. In reference to attacks on two communities in Plateau, Northcentral Nigeria on July 31, 2022, NADP recorded that “the August Narrative Report from the Northcentral Coordinator explains the motive behind the attacks thus: The motive behind the attack is not unconnected with the fact that the Fulani Militia was trying to frighten the community so that they will flee and abandon the community so that they can occupy and rename it in their interest. However, community resilience prevailed as they resisted any compulsion and decided to remain in their ancestral land by resigning their fate to God.”

In addition to the brutal killings documented by NADP, the Fulani have taken to abducting religious leaders and demanding huge ransoms. According to the report, “Kidnapping and the demands for huge ransoms have become the order of the day in Northern Nigeria. This criminal act is associated with bandits who are identified as Fulani armed men. In Northwest Nigeria, a total of 79 persons were reported to have been kidnapped including religious leaders within the second quarter of this project. The trend circulating on social media is the kidnapping of religious leaders, especially priests. Since the beginning of 2022, not less than 18 Catholic priests were abducted by armed Fulani bandits across the country. 80% of these abductions occurred in Northwest Nigeria.”

READ: Two priests kidnapped in Nigeria released after five-day captivity

Detailing the increase and spread of killings by Fulani herdsmen that went virtually unchecked toward the end of 2022, contributing to the current food crisis in Nigeria, NADP wrote, “Unlike the previous quarterly reports where more killings were reported from the same two states of Benue, and Plateau, the criminal attacks have spread to virtually the entire region. The Northcentral recorded the highest number of casualties of 182 persons. The criminal activities of Fulani herdsmen and bandits have continued to waste many lives in the region unchallenged. Their crimes have contributed immensely to the food crisis in Nigeria. This is because the Northcentral region, known for food production more than any region in the country, has been infested by killer Fulani herdsmen who kill farmers on their farms and by implication cripple agricultural activities in the region. The motive has always been to dislodge the Christians in the region and occupy the land.”

Detailing the brutality of the murders — which include beheadings — perpetrated by the Fulani in the predominantly Christian state of Benue, the NADP declared that “the precarious situation in Benue state with over 95% Christian population, calls for serious concern. The herdsmen are bent on evicting the entire Christian tribes in the Benue valley and occupy the area. Despite the numerous calls for the intervention of the Federal Government by the Benue state government, Fulani herdsmen still kill freely in Benue state with little or no confrontation by the security agencies.”

One such instance was the murder of a family of six, who were killed Jan. 19, 2023. According to the report, “The 13 Fulani killer-men killed 8 persons on that day, six from a family and two others. They beheaded one of the victims and left with his head.” These atrocities occurred around the Abagana IDP camp in Makurdi, the Benue state capital. NADP argued that “this implies that even at the IDP camps, there are no adequate security measures and so the internally displaced persons are at the mercy of the Fulani Militia.”

The NADP report concluded that it is beyond doubt that the Christians of Nigeria are suffering extreme persecution for their faith at the hands of violent Muslims, among which number the Fulani herdsmen and militia. The report warned the international community that it must acknowledge the true nature of the persecution, however unpopular it may be to name, if ever it hopes to address the real problem.

“There is certainly no gain saying that Christians in Northern Nigeria have become victims of religious extremism,” NADP wrote. “The atrocities of non-state actors like Boko Haram, founded on a religious ideology, affect Christians more in the region … There is the need to pay more attention to the unpopular religious dimensions of conflict and terrorism which have been jettisoned by economic and political dimensions. This will provide a deeper understanding of the fundamental underlying drivers of conflict and terrorism in Northern Nigeria. This will support the identification of suitable interventions that will address the true source of the conflict rather than the symptoms.”