By Peter Ajayi Dada
Local governor condemns “vile and satanic attack” on worshippers in Nigerian town at Pentecost
Like any other parish in the world, Catholics in the southwestern Nigerian town of Owo gathered to celebrate Pentecost Sunday last weekend, but the Mass which celebrates the birth of the Church in Jerusalem two millennia ago never concluded.
At least 50 parishioners of St Francis Xavier Church – many of them children – died after gunmen began shooting at people during Mass and outside the church. As of 6 June, the gunmen had escaped and remained at large.
The wounded and dying were taken to two hospitals.
Archbishop Lucius Ugorji, president of the Nigerian Catholic bishops’ conference, denounced the shootings, saying he was shocked and dismayed by what had happened.
“We condemn in the strongest terms the spilling of innocent blood in the house of God. The criminals responsible for such a sacrilegious and barbaric act demonstrate their lack of the sense of the sacred and the fear of the God,” he said.
“The vile and satanic attack is a calculated assault on the peace-loving people of Owo kingdom who have enjoyed relative peace over the years.”
“Nowhere seems to be safe again in our country; not even the sacred precincts of a church,” said Archbishop Ugorji, who is preparing to be installed as the leader of the Archdiocese of Owerri on 22 June.
Nigeria has experienced an increase in violence in recent months.
The archbishop called on government to quickly find the gunmen, saying that if they were not taken into custody and prosecuted, he feared the country would descend into anarchy.
“The world is watching us. Above all, God is also watching us,” he added.
Ondo Governor Rotimi Akeredolu hours after the attack said his administration will do everything possible to find the perpetrators and prosecute them.
Saying through a spokesman that he was saddened by the unprovoked attack, Akeredolu said he spoke with Bishop Jude Arogundade of Ondo, who was traveling to Owo.
“The vile and satanic attack is a calculated assault on the peace-loving people of Owo kingdom who have enjoyed relative peace over the years,” the spokesman quoted the governor as saying.
“It is a black Sunday in Owo. Our hearts are heavy. Our peace and tranquility have been attacked by the enemies of the people. This is a personal loss, an attack on our dear state.”
Bishop Arogundade appealed for calm in the wake of the violence.
“We condemn in the strongest terms the spilling of innocent blood in the house of God. The criminals responsible for such a sacrilegious and barbaric act demonstrate their lack of the sense of the sacred and the fear of the God.”
In a 5 June statement, the bishop acknowledged that the parish community was devastated by the violence and asked for prayers for peace in Nigeria and for normalcy to return to Owo and Ondo state.
“At this point in the history of our dear country, Nigeria, we need God’s ultimate intervention to restore peace and tranquility,” Bishop Arogundade said.
The Owo Diocese said that the parish priests were safe. Early social media reports erroneously said they had been kidnapped by the gunmen.
One of the priests, Father Andrew Abayomi, told local media that the attack occurred near the end of Mass when gunshots could be heard from different locations. “We hid inside the church, but some people had left when the attack happened,” he said.
“We locked ourselves inside the church for more than 20 minutes. It was when we heard that they had left that we opened the church and rushed the victims to the hospital.”
He said an unknown number of parishioners died in the attack.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis expressed his solidarity and closeness with Catholics in Nigeria in response to the violence.
“While the details of the incident are being clarified, Pope Francis prays for the victims and the country, painfully stricken in a moment of celebration, and entrusts both to the Lord, so that he may send his Spirit to comfort them,” said Matteo Bruni, director of the Vatican press office, in a statement June 5.
The attack met with swift condemnation from other prelates and community organisations.
Archbishop Alfred Adewale Martins of Lagos expressed concern for the victims and questioned the country’s existence to protecting innocent people.
“This only points to a failing state that has abdicated all its statutory responsibilities such that nonstate actors operate freely and with impunity.”
“We have never had it so bad for our country to be failing in nearly all aspects of her corporate existence,” he said in a statement released on 5 June.
“Security is in shambles, the economy has failed the majority of Nigerians are living in extreme poverty, and even the trend in politics gives a lot of concern to the average Nigerian,” he said.
Nigerians are living in a time of fear and anxiety and that their concerns were not being addressed by the government, he said, while calling on Nigerian leaders to step up efforts to prevent similar attacks.
“This only points to a failing state that has abdicated all its statutory responsibilities such that nonstate actors operate freely and with impunity,” the archbishop said.
Owo, a town in Ondo state, has an estimated population of 220,000 people. – CNS