Advocates of beleaguered Christians in northern Nigeria have long argued that members of Boko Haram—known for attacking churches and other targets—should be considered terrorists. Now the U.S. State Department, which recently ranked the group No. 2 on its list of worldwide perpetrators of attacks, finally agrees.
Yesterday's decision to officially label Boko Haram as a "foreign terrorist organization" drew strong praise from Christian Solidarity Worldwide and other observers of religious freedom in Nigeria. The welcomed new designation follows a recent report from the International Criminal Court, prompted by Nigerian Christians attempting a new legal tactic, arguing that Boko Haram's actions constitute crimes against humanity.
The State Department calculates that Boko Haram committed more than 360 attacks in 2012, killing more than 1,100 people. It also calculates that "the most lethal terrorist attacks in 2012 were those in which the primary target was a religious institution," and that "nearly one-third of the religious institutions targeted in 2012 were located in Nigeria."
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its own Boko Haram report in August, listing more than 100 religiously motivated attacks.
Leading the charge against Boko Haram has been Jubilee Campaign, which recently argued that 7 in 10 Christians killed worldwide last year came from Nigeria alone. Among Boko Haram's major attacks: a college shooting spree (estimated 46 deaths), an elite military church (estimated 30 deaths), and a Bible study (estimated 19 deaths).
BBC News recently turned a critical eye toward estimates of Christian martyrs worldwide, particularly the high end of 100,000 martyrs annually calculated by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary:
"When you dig down, you see that the majority died in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. More than four million are estimated to have been killed in that war between 2000 and 2010, and CSGC counts 900,000 of them—or 20%—as martyrs.
... "But surely it's not the case that all actively practising Christians who are killed in a civil war, are killed because of their faith?"
In response, Judd Birdsall, who previously worked in the State Department's international religious freedom office, argues that lower numbers are actually more helpful in a lengthy op-ed for Religion News Service:
"It may sound counterintuitive, but it's better to err on the side of undercounting martyrs than to risk overcounting them. What's at stake is credible religious freedom advocacy. Abusive regimes fear public scrutiny and look for any opportunity to undermine an advocate's credibility."
World Watch Monitor likewise responded with a lengthy explanation for Open Door's lower figure of 1,200 martyrs.
CT examined this debate back in August, assessing whether counting the cost (accurately) matters regarding martyrdom.
CT has regularly covered Nigeria and Boko Haram, including how Nigeria recently declared a state of emergency while Christian leaders debated amnesty for the extremists.
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