UK

Pentecost Sunday. One of the most important dates in the Christian calendar. A day of celebration and remembrance of the date the Holy Spirit filled the Church with power after the resurrection of Jesus. But for the congregants of St Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Owo, Ondo state, south-west Nigeria, this special day became one of horror when armed assailants launched an attack on their church just as they were concluding their Pentecost service.

While the Nigerian authorities are currently claiming the assailants disguised themselves as members of the congregation, several eyewitnesses stated in the immediate aftermath of the attack that assailants they identified as being of Fulani origin initially threw improvised explosive devices into the church building before firing indiscriminately on those gathered inside, as well as on those who had already begun to leave.

Nigeria Owo St Francis Catholic Church 6 Jun

 A view of the St Francis Catholic church in the town of Owo, Nigeria, on Monday, 6th June, a day after an attack that targeted worshippers. PICTURE: AP Photo/Sunday Alamba/File photo.

At least 50 people were killed, and over 70 others were injured, with a significant number of the casualties reported to be children. One witness explained 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.” 

Eyewitness accounts, alongside images and videos which have surfaced on social media in the aftermath of the attack, paint a devastating picture of an assault which reportedly continued for at least 20 minutes, without intervention from any police officers stationed nearby.

"Sadly, this has become an all-too-common theme in incidents of violence in Nigeria. While the majority of attacks by armed non-state actors such as these have historically centred on the country’s northern and central states, inadequate official intervention has allowed these groups to grow bolder, increasingly well-armed, and better co-ordinated as they have brought their campaign of terror further and further south."

Sadly, this has become an all-too-common theme in incidents of violence in Nigeria. While the majority of attacks by armed non-state actors such as these have historically centred on the country’s northern and central states, inadequate official intervention has allowed these groups to grow bolder, increasingly well-armed, and better co-ordinated as they have brought their campaign of terror further and further south.

Last year, attacks in Ogun state, which borders Ondo state where St Francis Xavier Catholic Church is based, forced thousands of villagers to flee to Pobe in the neighbouring Republic of Benin, where they remain to this day. 

Elsewhere, on 29th May, just a week before the attack on St Francis Xavier Church, the Prelate of the Methodist Church Nigeria, Most Rev Dr Samuel C Kanu Uche, the Bishop of Owerri, Rt Rev Dennis Mark, and the Prelate’s Chaplain, Very Rev Jeremiah Shittu, were abducted by eight gunmen of Fulani ethnicity whilst on an official visit to Abia state in the south-east. The three men were released on 30th May upon payment of a ransom of N100 million (around $A335,000), but not before they were reportedly assaulted, tortured and threatened.



Meanwhile, the situation in the north and centre of the country continues to deteriorate as those charged with ensuring security repeatedly fail to protect the lives of vulnerable citizens and hold those responsible for violence to account.

On a single day in April for example, simultaneous attacks by hundreds of armed assailants of Fulani origin claimed at least 142 lives in the Kanam Local Government Area (LGA) of Plateau state, with a further 156 injured and 70 abducted. Eyewitnesses described attackers riding on motorcycles in groups of three, with one to drive, one to shoot to the left, and another to shoot to the right, in what has become a well-documented strategy of the so-called Fulani militia. 

More recently, Rev Fr Christopher Onotu, the parish priest of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church Obangede, in Okene, Kogi State, was abducted by armed assailants at around 9pm on 4th June.

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Of course, this column has raised the issue of violence in Nigeria on several occasions, and CSW has spent much of the past decade calling on successive governments to significantly increase their efforts to combat the threats posed by the Fulani militia and other terrorist groups; however, it is clear that these calls have fallen on deaf ears.

With insecurity now at critical levels across the country, it is essential that the international community steps up its efforts to assist Nigeria in bringing an end to this horrific violence, and that it holds the current government to account for repeatedly failing to protect its own citizens, or to bring perpetrators to justice. 

We must also persist in prayer for the nation, asking God to heal the injured and traumatised, to comfort those in mourning, and crucially, to protect the vulnerable and the marginalised.

Please join us in claiming this verse from Isaiah 32:18 for the nation of Nigeria today: “My people will live in peaceful dwelling-places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest.”

ellis heasley

Ellis Heasley is public affairs officer at UK-based religious freedom advocacy CSW