LAGOS, Nigeria — The brutal attack on people at a Catholic church in Nigeria on Pentecost Sunday is “an attack on the entire Church,” said a U.S. official of Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity.
According to the Reuters news agency, gunmen fired at people inside and outside St. Francis Xavier Church in Owo, located in the southwestern state of Ondo. At least 50 people were reportedly killed during Mass June 5. Dozens more were injured and rushed to nearby hospitals.
“We extend our prayers for the victims, the wounded, their families and the entire Catholic community of Owo,” said George Marlin, chairman of the board of Aid to the Church in Need/USA, which is based in New York. “We stand with the Diocese of Ondo to help treat the wounded and those traumatized by this horrible tragedy.”
“This is the latest in the ongoing wave of brutal attacks on Nigeria’s Christians,” he said in a June 6 statement. “Political and religious leaders around the world must condemn this barbarism and put pressure on Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari to do what it takes finally to stop the violence and protect the Nigerian people.”
Nigeria’s Catholic bishops lamented that nowhere is safe in the country after the incident left dozens of people dead.
Archbishop Lucius Ugorji, president of the Nigerian Catholic bishops’ conference, released a statement from the bishops June 6, saying he was shocked and dismayed to learn of the attack a day earlier at the church in Owo, a town in Ondo state in the southwestern part of the country.
“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 June 22.
“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 archbishop called on the 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.
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York also noted that the attacks in Owo are the latest “in a growing number of attacks on Christians in Nigeria,” but he called the June 5 attack “especially horrific” because at least 50 worshippers “were slaughtered merely for gathering to celebrate the great feast of Pentecost,” recognized traditionally as the “birthday of the Church.”
“We pray for the repose of the souls of those who lost their lives in this attack, and for the comfort of all who mourn for them,” the cardinal said in a June 6 statement.
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 organizations.
Archbishop Alfred Adewale Martins of Lagos expressed concern for the victims and questioned the country’s existence to protecting innocent people.
“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 June 5 by the archdiocese.
“Security is in shambles, the economy has failed as 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.
Father Roger Landry, national chaplain for Aid to the Church in Need/USA, noted that the vestments a priest wears to celebrate Mass on Pentecost are “red, signifying the fire of the Holy Spirit.”
“Little did the Catholics at St. Francis Xavier in Owo, on the feast celebrating the Church’s birthday, know that their garments would similarly be drenched red in blood,” he said in a statement.
But “our beloved brothers and sisters in the faith, including the little children, have not died in vain,” the priest added. “Their blood will fertilize the soil of the faith in Nigeria and their martyrdom has already inspired and emboldened believers around the world.”