Report compiled from various news platforms
Calls on government to act as violence spreads to southern areas
At least 50 people were killed and more than 70 were injured yesterday when terrorists attacked them with explosives and AK-47s as they were celebrating Pentecost in their church in Owo in Ondo state in southwestern Nigeria.
A significant number of children died in the midday massacre at St Francis Catholic Church, which according to several eyewitnesses was carried out by gunmen wearing military camouflage, and who were of Fulani origin.
The attackers reportedly threw explosive devices into the building before opening fire indiscriminately. As church members moved quickly to shut the doors, they began shooting through the windows. According to eyewitnesses, many of the casualties had left the building early, with one witness stating “people died all around the church,” including a woman with four children and a man selling confectionary outside the building.
Video footage and photographs circulating on social media following the attack included footage of several victims lying on the floor of the church, and of an elderly woman sitting on the ground outside the church cradling a toddler in a bloodstained white dress. The reportedly large number of child victims may be due to the fact that the church has “a particular section for children to [sit] when they finish from their Sunday school… so that when the priest is passing, they can give him their ornaments, their rosaries, for him to bless.”
While it was initially reported that the priest in charge of the church had been kidnapped, the Catholic Diocese of Ondo Directorate of Social Communications later clarified that the priests and bishop of the parish were safe.
The assault on the church reportedly continued for 20 minutes and could be heard from the nearby Methodist Church. However, police officers stationed close to the area failed to respond. One eyewitness insisted it was “not possible that the police did not hear the gunshots or bangs … Even when we came out and tried to help the injured out of the church, there were no security or emergency services around. People from town were our first responders”.
Ministry organisation Open Doors which supports persecuted Christians all over the world says in a statement released today it is extremely concerned about the rising violence in Nigeria, especially against churches.
“Previously the violence was limited to the north of Nigeria, but now it is spreading to the southwestern and other parts of this North-African country,” says Open Doors.
While most sources said a motive is not clear, Adeyemi Olayemi, a lawmaker in Ondo, said the attack is believed to be the work of ethnic Fulani terrorists, sometimes referred to as bandits, who have staged relentless attacks predominantly in northern Nigeria but also in other parts of the country.
Olayemi said the attack was likely to have been in retaliation for recent restrictions by the state government on grazing in Ondo, including in forests where the assailants have carried out attacks. The restrictions were adopted after an upsurge in kidnappings in the state.
“We have enjoyed improved security since herdsmen were driven away from our forests by this administration,” Olayemi said. “This is a reprisal attack to send a diabolical message to the governor.”
Open Doors says it is investigating these claims and wants to raise awareness of the rising violence in Nigeria through news reports, prayer and awareness campaigns.
While attacks like these are generally rare in the south of Nigeria, such targeted attacks have been meted out against Northern Nigerian Christians with near impunity.
The attack follows just weeks after the brutal attack on Deborah, a young female student, who was killed in an extremely cruel way because of her Christian faith.
A week ago, the head of the Methodist Church in Nigeria was abducted along with two other clerics in the southeast of the country. The Methodist prelate said he paid $240 000 (R3.8 million) to be freed with his companions.
Two weeks ago, two Catholic priests were kidnapped in Katsina, President Muhammadu Buhari’s home state in the north of the country. They have not been released.
Commenting on yesterday’s attack in Owo, Open Doors’ spokesperson in sub-Saharan Africa, Jo Newhouse*, said: “We condemn in the strongest terms possible the attack on Christians as they gathered in peace to worship God. We call on the Nigerian government to adequately discharge its legal obligation of duty to protect its citizens, both under international and domestic legal regimes.
“We also call upon the authorities to take a strong stance against all violence, including Fulani militant violence. The authorities must investigate the perpetrators, hold them accountable to the justice system and break the cycle of violence that is expanding to other areas of the country, as is clearly shown by this incident. The longer these acts go unpunished, the longer they will continue.”
Lynette Leibach, executive director of Open Doors Southern Africa, said: “It is devastating to see the violence and destruction brought on families whilst they’re worshipping. Our prayers and support go to those affected. Targeting people when they are expressing their faith is an act of persecution. It is of critical importance that authorities protect the basic human right of freedom of religion and belief.”
The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) called on President Muhammadu Buhari to “stop the recycling of … criminals and terrorists in the name of de-radicalising programme,” and to find a lasting solution to “the unending killings in the country.”
Emphasising the terrorist links, investigative reporter David Hundeyin said: “These are actual terror attacks by groups linked to ISIS, Ansaru, Boko Haram etc. The individuals may or may not be Fulani, but that’s beside the point. … There are full-fledged terror cells embedded across southern Nigeria awaiting activation. I’m not spreading fear. … The terrorists are here. It’s not “Sambisa Forest” anymore.”
He said after his recent release by kidnappers the Methodist prelate related how he and his colleagues were assaulted and tortured, and alleged that military personnel of Fulani extraction stationed in the area were assisting their abductors. Worryingly, he also stated that one of their assailants, who work as herders by day and kidnappers by night, had boasted to them “that after buying enough weapons, they will bring all those that have been put in disarray and have been driven away from Zamfara, Katsina, Sambisa Forest, that they are all coming to locate themselves in Igbo land… and then they will deal with us.
“He said: ‘do you know Ibadan-Lagos Expressway? We are in all the bush there. We are everywhere there. We are also in the South-South. So, we are waiting for the slightest signal; we will finish you people and take over this land.’ They claimed that Nigeria belongs to Fulani.”
The prelate’s narration confirmed that of the late former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria Dr Obadiah Mailafia, who was among the first prominent Nigerians to raise the alarm about the current violence in southern Kaduna where thousands have been killed and tens of thousands displaced from Christian communities in militia attacks, the infiltration of extremists of Fulani ethnicity across the country, including in southern Nigeria, and their links with terrorist factions during a radio interview in 2020.
Among other things Mailafia had concurred that elements in the security forces were colluding with the perpetrators of attacks on farming communities, and highlighted the links between the terrorist networks and the armed non-state actors formerly referred to as bandits: “When they finish these rural killings, they will move to phase two. The phase two is they will go into the urban cities going from house to house, killing prominent people. This is the game plan. By 2022 they want to start a civil war in Nigeria.”
Last month Open Doors USA called on the US Biden administration to return Nigeria to its ‘Countries of particular concern” list of countries violating religious freedoms. David Curry, CEO of Open Doors USA said he was baffled by the administration’s removal of Nigeria from the list last November as the situation in Nigeria continued to deteriorate and the government failed to reign in extremism and “created an environment where extremists feel justified to attack Christians”.
Prayer rally in Jos
Meanwhile, thousands of Christians representing many church denominations gathered for a prayer rally in Jos, Nigeria, last week in response to incessant attacks by armed Fulani militants.
The “Solemn Assembly” prayer gathering last Wednesday in the Rwang Pam Township Stadium was convened by heads of churches and the Plateau State Chapter of the CAN. For the past 20 years, tens of thousands of Christians have been killed and many more displaced and driven from their lands and villages by Fulani militants.
Reverend Amos Mozoh, president of the Church of Christ in Nations (COCIN), gave a historical background of how Western missionaries brought the Gospel to the region. Rev Dr Stephen Panya, president of Evangelical Church Winning All, reinforced the importance of Christianity in the Middle Belt and said: “God is angry when other people ty to displace them from their ancestral lands.” He added that Jos “stands as a fortress against being overrun by enemies of the cross”,
Other church leaders led prayer sessions for peace and security, evangelism, peaceful political transition ahead of the general elections in 2023, and for the prosperity of Nigeria. The gathering was attended by the Plateau State governor, his deputy, and the speaker of the State Legislature.
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