Political and religious leaders convened at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday to urge the Trump administration to address the persecution of Christians in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region of Africa.
"As we approach the Christmas holiday there's an ongoing crisis that we need to speak about," Republican congressman Ron Estes (Kansas) told those in attendance. "Sadly, Christians in Nigeria are under fire in what many are calling a genocide by sectarian groups like Boko Haram."
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Citing growing food scarcity and increases in human trafficking, Estes stated it was important to "shed light" on the plight of the "more than two million individuals" displaced by violence.
The Lake Chad region—Cameroon, Niger, Chad, and Nigeria—has been wracked with violence and political unrest since 2009 when Boko Haram launched an insurgency against the Nigerian government. In recent months the Islamic jihadist group, which until recently was affiliated with ISIS, has escalated its attacks on Christians in areas where they constitute the ethnic minority.
In his remarks, Estes called on the Trump administration to move past humanitarian aide and appoint a special envoy to work directly with foreign governments and international organizations in preventing further bloodshed.
"It's important to note that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Ambassador Sam Brownback, and other government agencies are doing a lot to support peace and stability in this region," the congressman said. "However, we know more can be done to end the violence and save lives."
"The problem is serious and time is running out," Estes added.
Calls for a special envoy come amid an uptick in violence against Christians in Nigeria. Since the start of this year alone, more than 2,300 Christians have been killed in the country, according to the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law. By some reports, more than 16,000 Christians have been slaughtered in the region over the last three years.
The majority of the violence has been perpetrated by Boko Haram and the Fulani, one of Nigeria's largest ethnic Muslim groups. Fulani herdsman and Boko Haram have launched an aggressive campaign of raids on farming communities in northern Nigeria, where Christians are the minority.
The raids have proven devastatingly effective as nearly 900 churches have been burned and countless women and children have been kidnapped and trafficked. Despite strong evidence to the contrary, the Nigerian government has sought to play down the violence as a minor disagreement between different ethnic groups.
Speaking alongside Estes was former Republican congressman Frank Wolf (Va.), Archbishop Benjamin Argak Kwashi of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, and Faith McDonnell of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, among others. The event was organized by the Save the Persecuted Christians Coalition, a group that partners with religious and humanitarian organizations to alleviate religious oppression across the globe.
Wolf, who was noted for his human rights advocacy in Congress, said it was imperative to take a stand given the strategic importance the region held to global security and stability.
"Nigeria is the largest country in Africa," Wolf said. "If it unravels it will pose an existential threat to Europe and many other countries…. I plead with the administration … to appoint a special envoy."
The sentiment was echoed by Archbishop Kwashi, the leader of the largest Anglican diocese in northern Nigeria.
"This is a nation that is very rich, a nation that would reduce the burdens of America if it was properly harnessed. One that could help the other African countries," Kwashi said. "But it has been bedeviled and over time the structures of democracy that [should] strengthen a nation internally have been weakened."
The bishop claimed it was impossible to dismiss the genocide being perpetrated by Islamic extremists as a simple "clash between farmers and herdsmen."
"If you look at the geography of the killings from the beginning of Boko Haram, and even before that, you would have noticed that the killings are systematic," said Kwashi. "They are deliberative, they are calculated and those carrying them out are well trained. Everyone knows that they are trained either by Al-Qaeda or ISIS. Everyone knows that they are well armed, they kill soldiers, they kill police. They overrun villages … in the most inhuman ways."
Kwashi expressed "hope" that an American envoy could stand in a "neutral place" of "authority" and pressure the Nigerian government to protect its people, regardless of religious denomination.
"We need an envoy whose heart and voice will carry the weight necessary to stop the killings," the bishop added. "We are [appealing] to the kind-heartedness of the Americans, the energy, the care, and the concern for justice."