On Sunday morning, June 5, a Catholic church in southwest Nigeria was attacked by several gunmen, resulting in at least 50 deaths, including women and children, local media reported.
The motives and the allegiance of the gunmen is currently unknown, but the attacks during mass came at a time when security issues within the country are tense. Condemnation of the attack has come from as far away as the Vatican itself.
Murder during mass
The attack happened at around 11:30 a.m. (10:30 GMT) on Sunday, during a gathering of worshippers outside the St. Francis Catholic Church, located in the town of Owo in the southwestern state of Ondo.
According to police, the gunmen fired during the service, firing into and outside the church. Explosives were also used to attack the building. Worshippers were gunned down and many were wounded in the chaos, Funmilayo Ibukun Odunlami, police spokesperson for Ondo, said.
As the chaos subsided, Adelegbe Timileyin, representative of the Owo area in Nigeria’s lower legislative chamber, said that the death toll had reached at least 50 people — many of those killed in the attack were children. Some, however, said the toll was probably higher.
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The bishop and the church’s priests were previously reported to have been kidnapped, but the Catholic Church denied this, saying they all survived the onslaught, Catholic Church spokesman Reverend Augustine Ikwu said.
An anonymous doctor told Reuters that bodies were transported to two separate hospitals in Owo after the attack, where blood donations were required to treat the wounded.
Videos have been popping up online, apparently showing the bloody carnage ensuing.
The town of Owo is located 354 kilometers (214 miles) east of the city of Lagos.
“It is so sad that while the Holy Mass was going on, unknown gunmen attacked St. Francis Catholic Church… leaving many feared dead and many others injured and the Church violated,” Reverend Ikwu said.
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Response to the violence
“Our hearts are heavy,” Ondo state governor Rotimi Akeredolu said, expressing his shock at the attack, which he called “vile and satanic,” adding that, “Our peace and tranquility have been attacked by the enemies of the people.”
Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari condemned the “heinous killing of worshippers.”
“Only fiends from the nether region could have conceived and carried out such a dastardly act,” he said in a statement.
The police in Ondo have vowed to arrest the attackers, ordering the “deployment of armed and specialized police” to “restore normalcy and fortify the entire community.” An “anti-bomb squad” has also been sent to the scene of the attack.
At the moment, Odunlami said that the exact death toll was still unclear.
“It’s still premature to say exactly how many people were killed. But many worshippers lost their lives while others were injured in the attack.”
Akeredolu warned citizens “don’t take laws into your own hands.”
Flags are being flown at half-mast for seven days starting Monday.
The Vatican said that Pope Francis was praying for the victims who were “painfully stricken in a moment of celebration.”
Insecurity in Nigeria
Currently, the motives of the gunmen are unknown, nor has any known group claimed responsibility for the attack.
However, Nigeria has continued to struggle with security issues, including Islamic insurgency groups like Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). Across the country, armed gangs have also carried out attacks and kidnappings for ransom, mainly in the northwestern regions.
Moreover, the state of Ondo is said to be one of the most peaceful states in Nigeria. However, it has seen a violent conflict between farmers and nomadic herders, intensified by the continuing “pastoral land scarcity” and urbanization.
In May, the Catholic Archdiocese of Kaduna announced that Nigerian priest, Father Joseph Aketeh Bako, died in captivity after he was abducted by gunmen in March.
“No matter what, this country shall never give in to evil and wicked people, and darkness will never overcome light. Nigeria will eventually win,” Buhari said.
Buhari was elected after he gave his promise to end Nigeria’s security problems.