Gunmen suspected to be Islamic Fulani herdsmen barged into a Catholic Church in southwestern Nigeria, opened fire and detonated explosives while the congregation was celebrating Mass on Pentecost Sunday, killing at least 50 worshipers, including women and children. It's feared that some Christians were also abducted after the attack.
After the gunmen stopped shooting and the aftermath of the explosions was visible at St. Francis Catholic Church in Owo, Ondo State, “it was a gory sight as dead bodies, both old and young, mostly women and children littered the church,” the Nigerian daily The Guardian reported. “Some bodies were dismembered with internal organs splashed on the temple ground.”
The Rev. Andrew Abayomi, who led the Mass, was quoted as saying, “We asked the people to seek refuge inside the church and we locked the doors. Some people still tried to escape; the attack was on for about 20 minutes.”
A doctor told reporters that at least 50 bodies had been moved to the main government hospital in Owo and to St. Louis Catholic Hospital.
“I was moved to tears when I saw a little boy that I used to hold his hands to school every morning lying down dead, among many others," one witness recalled. "What have we done wrong? Is it a crime to go to church to serve our God?”
The witness said the gunmen, who are believed to be radical Fulani herders, got into the church from different angles, shot indiscriminately at the congregants and detonated what appeared to be dynamite.
Another witness was quoted as saying that some church members were abducted and their whereabouts is unknown.
Ondo State Governor Rotimi Akeredolu wrote on Twitter: “This vile and satanic attack is a calculated assault on the peace-loving people of Owo Kingdom who have enjoyed relative peace over the years. … I appeal to our people to maintain calm and let the security agencies take charge … the perpetrators will never escape. We are after them. And I can assure you we will get them.”
Pope Francis offered his condolences to the victims and their family members.
“The pope has learned of the attack on the church in Ondo, Nigeria, and the deaths of dozens of worshipers, many children, during the celebration of Pentecost,” the pope said in a statement. “While the details are being clarified, Pope Francis prays for the victims and the country, painfully affected at a time of celebration, and entrusts them both to the Lord so that he may send his Spirit to console them.”
In southwestern Nigeria, such attacks are not common. Violence related to Islamic insurgency is frequent in the northeast, and bandits often attack and abduct people for ransom in the northwest.
Open Doors USA, which monitors persecution in over 60 countries, reported that at least 4,650 Christians were killed between Oct. 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021. That is an increase from 3,530 the previous year. Additionally, more than 2,500 Christians were kidnapped, up from 990 a year earlier.