“Violating a place of worship, killing priests and worshippers is not only vile, evil and satanic, it is clearly calculated to stoke up religious conflict and plunge our communities into endless bloodletting.”
– Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari
Two priests were among at least 18 people killed in a dawn attack on a church in central Nigeria, police said Tuesday, in violence condemned by President Muhammadu Buhari as “satanic”.
Around 30 suspected herdsmen attacked Mbalom community in the volatile region killing the worshippers and the two priests, said Benue state police commissioner Fatai Owoseni in the state capital of Makurdi.
“They attacked the venue of a burial ceremony and also attacked the church where the two reverend fathers were holding mass,” said Owoseni. “We were able to recover 16 bodies from the scene of the attack and those of the two priests.”
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari described the violence as “satanic” in a statement.
“This latest assault on innocent persons is particularly despicable,” said Buhari. “Violating a place of worship, killing priests and worshippers is not only vile, evil and satanic, it is clearly calculated to stoke up religious conflict and plunge our communities into endless bloodletting.”
Worshippers were gathered for the daily 5:30 am service at St. Ignatius Catholic church when they heard gunshots, said local stated. “People started scampering and wailing, gunned down in cold blood while many sustained injuries including bullet wounds. After attacking the church, the invaders descended on the community and razed over 60 houses,” the eyewitness said. “The village is on fire and deserted, the community is fleeing to neighbouring villages hoping to find a safe haven for their families.”
The Catholic Diocese of Makurdi confirmed the death of priests Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha in a statement denouncing the violence.
Riots over the killings erupted in Makurdi, the epicentre of the violence that has thrown the state into chaos.
Police fired teargas to disperse a rampaging mob that took over a busy intersection and lit massive fires in protest of the latest attack.
“We are under siege,” said acting governor of Benue state Benson Abounu. “We have been attacked from all corners and this is unacceptable.”
Central Nigeria is in the grip of a security crisis as nomadic herders and sedentary farmers fight over land in an increasingly bloody battle for resources.
The conflict is now more deadly than the Boko Haram jihadist insurgency that has ravaged Nigeria’s northeast and is becoming a key issue in the upcoming 2019 presidential polls.
Benue state lies in Nigeria’s so-called Middle Belt that separates the predominantly Muslim north from the largely Christian south. The area has long been a hotbed of ethnic, sectarian and religious tensions between indigenous farming communities, who are mainly Christian and the nomadic cattle herders, who are Muslim. The clashes over land have escalated into a rift that has deepened along nominally religious lines.
President Buhari, who is seeking a second term, has been under pressure to end the violence and ordered in military reinforcements, but the killings continue in the absence of a strong police force and efficient judicial system.
“People are being killed regularly and nothing is being done in terms of bringing perpetrators to book,” Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development West Africa, stated.
“There is a belief that there is a conspiracy against the people,” Hassan said, speaking from Abuja. “It is getting worse and it’s getting messier,” Hassan said, warning “we must quickly address this, before we get into a free-for-all war.”
Fr. Tyolaha had been displaced by herdsmen in his own parish and he went to take refuge in Fr. Gor’s parish.
More than any other institution in Nigeria, the Catholic Church has been in the vanguard of calling our political leaders to stand up to their responsibility of protecting lives and property. Recently the Bishops called again on President Buhari to give close attention to Nigeria’s degrading security situation.
In his Easter message, Bishop Kukah called on the President and his security advisers to wake up to the daily orgies of blood in the nation.
The Nigerian blogger, ‘Latest Amebo.com’, was outspoken and direct in the aftermath of the brutal attack:
“Citizens are needlessly dying everyday across the country and nobody is bringing the merchants of death to justice. This country is sliding into anarchy. T.Y. Danjuma called for self-defense a few weeks ago and he was gagged by many publicists and social media tyrants. Nigeria is sliding into anarchy! President Buhari, watch it! Watch it! Watch it! When you visited Benue State a few weeks ago you told the people to try and accommodate “their brothers”, meaning the herdsmen. Is this the kind of accommodation you want? Accommodation that brings brutal and violent death?”
The blog site also published a message which Fr Joseph Gor had post on Facebook in early January 2018 which implied fear and intimidation by the Fulani herdsmen.
Fr Michael McCabe SMA asks readers to remember the people of the Diocese Makurdi, Nigeria, in their prayers. There are 14 Irish SMA missionaries currently working in Nigeria.