Church killings in Nigeria leave Catholics ‘confused, scared and sad’

A man cries during a funeral mass in the parish hall of St. Francis Xavier Church in Owo, Nigeria on June 17. The mass was for at least 50 victims killed in a June 5 attack by gunmen during mass at the church. (CNS/Reuters/Temilade Adelaja)

Prof. Victor Ibiyemi had just finished leading a second Sunday Mass at the St. Benedict Army Chaplaincy in Akure, Nigeria, when he learned that gunmen had attacked, shot and killed around 40 parishioners during the mass at the parish of Saint-François in the same diocese of Ondo in June. 5.

Since that day, the atmosphere in many Catholic parishes in Nigeria has shifted to one of fear and apprehension, Ibiyemi and other Nigerian priests told NCR in separate interviews.

It was not the first time that Christians in the West African country had been attacked, and it would not be the last.

Pr. Joseph Aketeh Bako was abducted and killed in April. There have been attacks and kidnappings of at least six other Catholic priests across Nigeria this year alone. On June 19, gunmen also attacked worshipers at St. Moses Catholic Church and a Baptist Church in Kaduna State, killing three people and abducting several others.

“Since the shooting and massacre on June 5, the atmosphere here has been gloomy and sad. It is still shocking that armed men could invade the church and shoot innocent and harmless worshipers who came to worship God on a Sunday. Since this horrible incident, we are all scared and angry,” Ibiyemi said.

Prof. Victor Ibiyemi of Ondo Diocese in Nigeria (Courtesy of Victor Ibiyemi)

Prof. Victor Ibiyemi of Ondo Diocese in Nigeria (Courtesy of Victor Ibiyemi)

The most notable aspect of the St. Francis shootings and killings was the scale and determination of the assailants to storm and open fire on parishioners attending mass.

The June 5 shooting shook the world, prompting condemnation from Pope Francis, who appeared to blame the attacks on religious hatred. Francis said he prayed “for the conversion of those who are blinded by hatred and violence” so that they “rather choose the path of peace” and justice.

In Nigeria, a country of over 200 million people, about 54% of the population identifies as Muslim. About 45% identify as Christian, including 10% as Catholic.

Clashes over resources in some states could fuel religious tensions that spark violence, kidnappings and shootings that spread across the country.

Ryan Cummings, an Africa-focused security expert, said Ondo state – where St. Francis Parish is located – has seen an upsurge in such tensions between largely Muslim nomadic herders and farmers. predominantly Christian.

Although there have been no claims for the attacks, Cummings believes the struggle over resources is a major contributor to the spike in violence and attacks on Christians in the region. Worse still, this trend could worsen ahead of the election.

“We have seen quite a significant upsurge in community violence. I certainly think going into the Nigerian election cycle we will see an upsurge in violence,” said Cummings, director of risk management consultancy security Signal Risk, to the German media DW.

Concerns and concerns among the Catholic and Christian community in Nigeria that violence will flare up ahead of next year’s elections are growing.

Jesuit father.  Ujah Gabriel Ejembi, parish priest of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Benin City, Nigeria (Courtesy of Ujah Gabriel Ejembi)

Jesuit father. Ujah Gabriel Ejembi, parish priest of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Benin City, Nigeria (Courtesy of Ujah Gabriel Ejembi)

Jesuit father. Ujah Gabriel Ejembi, the parish priest of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Benin City, told NCR that he and other priests no longer feel comfortable traveling in office attire, as they have fear of being identified as priests.

“Currently we live in fear. Wealthier parishes now frequently employ armed men to protect churches at night and during special parish celebrations. In my parish there are armed police every Sunday,” said Ejembi.

Ejembi said the violence has led Nigeria to become a “bankrupt nation”.

“[The] the security architecture has completely collapsed leading to an increase in banditry and incessant kidnappings and even inevitable lynchings of so-called blasphemers,” the priest said.

Yet, it is not only religious institutions and worshipers who are the target of violent attacks in Nigeria. The Institute of Security Studies found that in January 2022 alone, “a total of 1,486 people in the country fell victim to insecurity”, of whom 915 were killed, while 571 were kidnapped.

The upsurge in insecurity is the “result of separatist agitation and associated repressive state responses”, he notes.

Ejembi said the attacks on the Christian community in Nigeria are meant to be an “effective strategy to suppress Christianity by subjecting its leaders to traumatic experiences”.

The kidnappers are also seeking money through ransom payments for kidnapped church leaders, he added.

In May, a Nigerian Prelate of the Methodist Church, Samuel Kanu-Uche, was abducted. The kidnappers demanded and reportedly received $250,000 in ransom before releasing the prelate.

Many religious leaders and theologians in Nigeria blame the government for not doing enough to address the situation of growing insecurity, especially ahead of the 2023 elections.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is expected to sign a new bill banning the payment of ransoms for kidnapped people. This further complicates the situation, especially against the backdrop of strong criticism of security forces’ handling of violence across the country.

The Nigerian government has a duty to address and control this violence and hold its perpetrators accountable, said Catholic theologian David DeCosse.

“In our complex, multi-religious world, an unwavering commitment to respecting the religious freedom of all is one of the key factors in creating a peaceful society,” said DeCosse, director of religious ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied ethics.

Ibiyemi fears Nigeria could become “unstable” during the election season, as there has been a history of violence at polling stations.

At least six people died in May in violent skirmishes during a primary election within the ruling Progressive Party to choose the party’s representative in the Alimosho constituency of the Lagos House of Assembly.

In the presidential race, the All Progressives Party elected former governor of Lagos, Bola Tinubu, to face the country’s former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, who faces the main opposition, the People’s Democratic Party. The winner will replace Buhari, who has led Nigeria since 2015 and left the country among the poorest in the world.

A nun has her fingerprints taken during the Independent National Electoral Commission's voter registration exercise at a center in Abuja, Nigeria on June 23.  (CNS/Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde)

A nun has her fingerprints taken during the Independent National Electoral Commission’s voter registration exercise at a center in Abuja, Nigeria on June 23. (CNS/Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde)

A study conducted in 2019, when the country was holding its last elections, showed that “the pre-election period was generally more violent and deadly. Worse still, the actual polling days could be just as violent.

Rinu Oduala, project director for human rights and anti-violence group Connect Hub Nigeria, told NCR that the rise in violence in Nigeria is due to “government neglect, the porous borders for weapons of war and criminals, the constant injustice from Nigerians judicial institutions, corruption, unemployment, state violence, [and] ethnic and religious tensions stoked by political leaders. »

She said: ‘In reality, many of these killings are politically and religiously motivated.

Incidents of violence against Christians in Nigeria have increased in recent months. Open Doors USA, which tracks the persecution of Christians for their faith, notes that Nigeria has become the seventh most dangerous place for Christians in the world.

In 2021, nearly 6,000 Nigerian Christians were killed for their faith, Open Doors USA said in a May report. If the trend continues, the group said, it believes 2022 numbers will surpass those of 2021.

Ibiyemi said he wanted the Nigerian government to do more to deal with attacks and kidnappings from churches.

“We are calling for help all over the world as people are being killed and tortured by these terrorists,” the priest said. “We are confused, scared and sad.”

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