But whitewashing the reality of religious persecution simply makes matters worse. Since 1999, there have been a dozen Muslim-Christian clashes in northern Nigeria resulting in over 13,000 dead, but not a single perpetrator has been brought to justice. Ethnic power struggles and economic disparities can fuel hate, but struggles for money, land, and power often cut along religious lines, and religious hatred is a convenient proxy for broader discontent that leads to violence.
Evidence of increasingly shrill tones and rising intolerance is continuing to bubble to the surface. One needs to look no further than July 2009, when the radical movement, "Boko Haram," instigated widespread rioting in northern Nigeria's Bauchi State, leaving as many as 900 dead and many more displaced Christians and Muslims, all under the banner of repelling "Western education" in Nigeria.
It is no accident that this sectarian violence has largely occurred in the predominantly Muslim part of northern Nigeria. Though Nigeria’s constitution declares that there is no state religion, twelve state governments have instituted Islamic Sharia law. Christians in the north have told us on visits to the country that they are treated like second class citizens.
Climates of impunity fester in other key strategic countries, affecting Coptic Christians in Egypt, Bahai's in Iran, Ahmadi Muslims in Indonesia, Catholics and Yazidis in Iraq, Hindus and Christians in Pakistan, Jews in Russia and Venezuela, and Muslims and Christians in India, to name just a few examples. In each case, the failure to crack down on religiously-motivated violence presents the threat of emboldening extremists and thereby fostering terrorism, both domestically and internationally. Where law enforcement and courts are not up to the challenge, individuals who kill people because of faith and destroy their places of worship will continue to stoke violence with impunity.
And the effects of Nigeria's struggle with extremism do not end at the Nigerian border. Last year's Christmas Day Bomber captured international attention when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a native of Nigeria, attempted to destroy a Northwest Airline flight on its approach to Detroit. No doubt every facet of his life inside and outside Nigeria will be meticulously scrutinized during his prosecution here.
It is difficult to know whether al-Qaeda or other affiliated groups are on the ground in Nigeria. The Nigerian government says they are not, though by the United States naming them as a "country of interest"— which requires that their citizens undergo additional screening at U.S. Airports— real questions have been raised.
As Nigeria faces new and continuous challenges, the bilateral agreement signed last month between the United States and Nigerian governments comes at a critical time. Indeed, our two nations enjoy very religiously active and diverse societies, which are also committed to democracy and human rights for all people. This new relationship should serve as an opportunity to work with the government of Nigeria as they address some of the conditions that present threats of terrorism to both of our democracies.
Leonard Leo is Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Trent Franks is a Republican Congressman for the 2nd District of Arizona and has spent most of his life working on children’s issues and trying to build a better future for all children.