The senseless shooting of at least 50 Catholic faithful on Pentecost Sunday, June 5, 2022, during Holy Mass at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, Owo, Ondo State, South-Western Nigeria, by yet-to-be-identified gunmen, is another brutal chapter in the persecution of Christians in Nigeria.
The police are on the trail of the unknown gunmen who fled the church premises after the wicked act. Parishioners who sustained various degrees of injury have since been rushed to different hospitals in the state for urgent attention. The Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) is calling for doctors’ assistance and blood donations to save the lives of victims.
With serial killings of clerics and unprovoked attacks on worshippers, the safety of Christians in Nigeria is at its lowest ebb.
In the wake of such tragedies, government officials and leaders often return to business as usual while the families of victims are left to mourn and bury their dead. However, in this case, both the Ondo State Governor, His Excellency Arakunrin Oluwarotimi Akeredolu (SAN), and the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Ondo, Most Reverend Jude Arogundade, demonstrated leadership by quickly arriving at the scene of the dastardly act.
Confirming the incident, the Director of Social Communications for Ondo Diocese, Rev. Fr. Augustine Ikwu, commented, “It is so sad to say that while the Holy Mass was going on, men of unknown origin, wielding guns, attacked St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, Owo, Ondo State.” He stressed, “Many are feared dead and many others injured and the Church violated.” He further noted, “The identity of the perpetrators remains unknown while the situation has left the community devastated.”
Father Ikwu assured that security agencies have been deployed to the community to calm the tense situation. “All the Priests in the parish are safe and none was kidnapped as the social media has it. The Bishop of the Diocese is also with them at this trying time. Let us continue to pray for them and the good people of Owo and the state at large,” Fr. Ikwu stated, as he urged all to “turn to God to console the families of those whose lives were lost in this distressing incident.”
While praying to God to grant the faithful departed eternal rest, Fr. Ikwu underlined that “The Bishop appeals that we remain calm, be law abiding, and pray for peace and normalcy to return to our community, state, and country.”
Bishop Arogundade himself stated, “At this point in the history of our dear country Nigeria, we need God’s ultimate intervention to restore peace and tranquility.”
Rev. Fr. Anthony Adetayo, a priest of the neighboring diocese of Ijebu-Ode, in the same state, decried why the attackers would descend on the faithful on a day that the Church is celebrating Pentecost Sunday. In his words, sadly this feast, commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit, was “not all ‘smile’ for the Catholic Diocese of Ondo—as unknown gun men entered the Church just as the Mass was about ending and opened fire on innocent parishioners.” He continued, “They also made use of some explosives. A lot of parishioners scattered in attempt to rescue their life but even with that, many lost their lives and many were terribly injured.”
In a response to the attack, Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, issued a statement expressing his condolences to the families of victims while ordering for emergency agencies to assist the injured.
He assured his people, “No matter what, this country shall never give in to evil and wicked people, and darkness will never overcome light. Nigeria will eventually win.”
While the national leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and presidential aspirant Bola Tinubu donated N50 million to the families of the victims of the attack and N25 million to the Catholic Church, the Chairman of the Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF)—and Ekiti State Governor—Kayode Fayemi gave N50 million to victims on behalf of the NGF.
Bishop Arogundade visited the scene of the attack and various hospitals in company of the state governor where he assessed the situation and prayed for the victims.
The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has condemned what it called an “unprovoked attack and killing of innocent worshippers” at Owo while calling on the security agencies to apprehend the perpetrators.
In a statement signed by the media assistant to the CAN president, Pastor Adebayo Oladeji, the apex Christian body called “for a total overhauling of the security architecture and are asking President Muhammadu Buhari to stop the recycling of those criminals and terrorists in the name of de-radicalising programme.”
On its part, the National Catholic Laity Council of Nigeria, through its President, Hon. Sir Henry Yunkwap, KSJI, maintained that “as a Christian group and direct mourners of this sad incident, we do not want to only condemn this barbaric act carried out by this [sic] animals in human form but use this medium to let the government know that we have taken enough of this killing of our people and we now find it very difficult to chew what they’ve forcefully put in our mouth. The only option left is to throw it out.”
Sir Yunkwap used the medium to “on behalf of the entire Catholic Laity in Nigeria sympathize with the Bishop, priests and the Laity of Ondo Diocese over this act.” He expressed, “Our hearts are with you. We pray for the departed souls and quick recovery to the injured.”
On his part, the Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Christian Pilgrim Commission (NCPC), Reverend Yakubu Pam, described “the killing of innocent worshippers” as a “cowardly and inhuman” act.
Reverend Pam maintained that “The church will not be intimidated by the actions of a few disgruntled elements in our society who are bent on destabilizing the peace of this nation.”
The cleric urged “the security agencies to up their game by fishing out the perpetrators of this heinous and callous act.”
He also commiserated with the Governor of Ondo State, Chief Rotimi Akeredolu, and the good people of Ondo State “over this monumental loss,” saying, “Light will certainly shine over forces of darkness no matter how long it takes.”
While there is not a one-size-fits-all answer for these attacks, or abductions of Christians and Christian persecution in general, experts cite growing numbers of Christians in Northern Nigeria, a region hitherto viewed as exclusively Islamic, as a cause of increased persecution. The tussle for political power with “infidels”; a “clash of civilization” between Islam and Christianity—with the latter seen as a ploy of the West to corrupt Islamic values; hate-preaching by itinerant preachers who have little or no knowledge of religious tolerance; and the expansion of Jihad (holy war) waged by Usman dan Fodio between 1804-1808 across the country, have all contributed to an uptick in violence in Nigeria.
There are similar incidents where innocent Christians were rounded up and killed in Nigeria by gun-wielding men who were never caught or prosecuted.
The Owo attack comes 11 years after the Christmas suicide-bomb attack of December 25, 2011, on St. Theresa’s Catholic Church, Madalla, Niger State, North-Central Nigeria, which claimed the lives of 39 parishioners.
The following year, a deadly attack involving a Vectra car occurred. A suicide-bomber used the car to force himself to the gate of St. John Catholic Cathedral, Bauchi, North-Eastern Nigeria on Sunday September 23, 2012. The attack killed at least four worshippers. Over 15 people, including women and children, sustained various degrees of injury. The worshippers were leaving the church after a morning Mass when the attacker ran into them.
On April 24, 2018, two Catholic priests, Reverend Fathers Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha, along with 17 parishioners, were massacred in cold blood at St. Ignatius’ Catholic Church, Ukpor-Mbalom Parish, Gwer East Local Government Area of Benue State in North-Central Nigeria.
Unless and until the Church in Nigeria wakes up from its slumber and sees the problem for what it is, these attacks, which Rene Wadlow, in 2015, referred to as “the long shadow of Usman dan Fodio” might not abate soon.
[Photo: Blood-stained floor of St. Francis Catholic Church in Owo town, southwest Nigeria (Getty Images)]