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Gunmen massacre killed at least 50 people at Nigerian church

The ministry organisation Open Doors, which supports persecuted Christians all over the world, is shocked by the massacre at a church in southwestern Nigeria in which at least 50 people were killed, many more injured and an unknown number of people abducted – with the dead including a large number of children.

Open Doors 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.


Brutal attack on worshippers

On Sunday, 5 June, unknown gunmen attacked the St Francis Catholic Church in the town of Owo, Ondo State, southwestern Nigeria, as members gathered to celebrate Pentecost. They killed an estimated 50 people and abducted the presiding priest and an unknown number of attendees.

Police spokesperson for Ondo state, Funmilayo Ibukun Odunlami, said the gunmen shot at people outside and inside the church building, killing and injuring worshippers. According to eyewitnesses, the attackers also detonated explosives. According to a BBC report, the attackers then abducted the priest and some other church goers.

So far, there is no official death toll. Adelegbe Timileyin, who represents the Owo area in Nigeria’s lower legislative chamber, said at least 50 people had been killed, though others put the figure higher and estimate that the death toll could rise to 70 people. State politician, Ogunmolasuyi Oluwole, said the dead included many children.

A doctor at a hospital who declined to be named said at least 50 bodies had been brought to two hospitals. Dozens of wounded sought medical attention, overwhelming hospital staff.

Ondo state Governor Arakunrin Oluwarotimi Akeredolu, who visited the scene of the attack and some of the injured at the hospital, described Sunday’s incident as “a great massacre” that should not be allowed to happen again.


Unknown motive

No one has so far claimed responsibility for the attack.

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 is investigating these claims and wants to raise awareness of the rising violence in Nigeria through news reports, prayer and awareness campaigns.


Other recent attacks on Christians

While attacks like these are generally very 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.

One 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 (£190 000) 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.


Peaceful worshipping turned into devastation

Rev Augustine Ikwu, a secretary of the Catholic Church in Ondo, said in a statement that the attack had “left the community devastated”. “We turn to God to console the families of those whose lives were lost,” he said.

The Vatican said Pope Francis was praying for the victims, who had been “painfully stricken in a moment of celebration”.

Open Doors’ spokesperson for the work in sub-Saharan Africa, Jo Newhouse*, commented: “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, adds: “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.”

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