After horrific execution of Christians, Release International names Nigeria country of special concern for 2020

Women displaced by Boko Haram's attacks waiting for food at St Theresa Catholic Church, Yola.World Watch Monitor

Persecution watchdog Release International has named Nigeria as its country of special concern for 2020. 

It follows the horrific execution of 11 Christians in the country over Christmas.  The Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP), a splinter group of the terrorist outfit Boko Haram, was behind the brutal killings. 

Footage of the executions was released on December 26 and appeared to be deliberately timed to coincide with Christians around the world celebrating the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day. 

ISWAP claimed that the brutal murders were in retaliation for the death of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who killed himself during an attack by US forces in October.

A voiceover to the video said: "This message is to the Christians in the world. Those you see are Christians and we will shed their blood as revenge." 

In addition to violence by ISWAP, Nigerian Christians are being targeted in attacks by Boko Haram and armed Fulani militia. Thousands have been killed and or forced from their homes.

"Tens of thousands of Christians are being driven from their homes by the ongoing persecution in Nigeria," said Release CEO Paul Robinson.

"While the death toll is rising, the world simply watches. Nigeria's government appears to lack the will or the power to prevent the killings."

Release International's Nigeria partner, Archbishop Ben Kwashi, added: "Across the north, the mainly Muslim Fulani have been taking land from predominantly Christian farmers by force and occupying their villages.

"They attack, typically, in the middle of the night while people are sleeping. They shoot in the air and create panic to drive the villagers out. When the people flee from their houses into the darkness, the Fulani lie in wait with their machetes and cut them down. Again and again. And the government seems powerless to stop them."

The Global Terrorism Index 2019 last month ranked Nigeria third for terrorist violence after Iraq and Afghanistan, with the report warning that while deaths at the hands of Boko Haram have decreased, those attributed to extremist Fulani militants increased by 261 per cent in a single year. 

"Eighty-four per cent of these armed assaults targeted civilians," the report said, adding that Fulani extremists have become the "primary driver of the increase in terrorism" in sub-Saharan Africa.

Mr Robinson warned that attacks by Fulani militia are "set to continue" in 2020. 

"Our contacts on the ground say the government does not have the will to stop the land-grab and provide security for Christians," he said. 

But Release International has identified other hotspots for 2020, including Iran, where persecution has been on the rise over the last four years, with one of the organisation's partners describing a "forced exodus" of Christians resulting from the government's attempts to "exterminate the Persian-speaking church". 

It also predicts increased instability in Iraqi Kurdistan, wich over 100,000 refugees expected to arrive in the region in the coming year as a result of unrest in the south of Iraq and neighbouring Syria. 

There are fears that Islamic State fighters are seeking to re-establish their presence in Iraq, posing further risks to the country's persecuted Christian minority. 

Mr Robinson welcomed the promise of Prime Minister Boris Johnson in his Christmas message to stand with persecuted Christians. 

Mr Johnson said: "I want us to remember Christians around the world who are facing persecution. We stand with Christians everywhere, in solidarity, and will defend your right to practise your faith."

Release International has asked the new government to implement the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro's review into persecution commissioned by former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. 

The review warned that persecution against Christians was reaching genocidal levels. 

"Release is delighted that the UK government has pledged to put freedom of religion and belief at the centre of foreign policy," Mr Robinson said.

"This could make a significant difference in the coming year, as persecution worldwide looks set to increase."