By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
On 5 June, Catholic faithful at St. Francis Xavier parish in Owo, Ondo State, Nigeria were at a Pentecost Sunday Mass when they were hit by a terror attack as gunmen opened fire on the congregants, killing at least 41 people and injuring dozens.
The Owo incident is the latest in a series of deadly attacks by unknown armed persons in Africa’s most populous nation, as Nigerian authorities continue to take steps to face the security challenges in the country.
Both religious and civil leaders have condemned the loss of innocent lives during the massacre, and the government has vowed to go after the perpetrators in order to bring them to justice.
In the wake of the horrible tragedy, Fr. Andrew Adeniyi Abayomi, the associate pastor at St. Francis Xavier church in Owo, spoke to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) in an interview, describing his first-hand experience of the attack, and how the traumatized faithful in his parish are trying to recover from it.
Fr. Abayomi recounts that he was still on the sanctuary when the attack happened. He had just put incense in the thurible at the end of the Mass to prepare for the procession outside the Church when he heard a noise, followed by another. He said that he first confused it for a door slamming or something else, until he saw parishioners running in different directions and someone informed him about the gunmen.
Realizing the gravity of the situation, he urged the people to move through the sanctuary into the sacristy, and some of them were able to escape from through there. Some other parishioners had also succeeded in locking the entrance door to the church in a bid to slow down the attackers.
For his part, Fr. Abayomi remained inside of the sacristy as he was surrounded by children and some adults who clung to him. In his words, he shielded them “as a hen shields her chicks.”
Throughout the attack which lasted between 20 and 25 minutes, Fr. Abayomi said that he encouraged his parishioners and calmed them, while praying for God’s intervention in the situation.
The exact number of the attackers is unclear, as reports vary between four and six gunmen.
When he finally came out of the sacristy, he was met with the terrible scene of some dead parishioners and many others who were injured. He immediately began to make arrangements to transport the injured to the hospital and personally drove some there. He said that the dead were left in the church as efforts were concentrated on saving the injured.
In these days, Fr. Abayomi notes that the Church has been occupied with providing pastoral care for those grieving the death of the loved one, and for the injured, by visiting them, praying with them, administering the sacraments and encouraging them to keep hope alive. Their efforts have been helped by the diocese who called on other parishes to lend their support.
In addition, the government, as well as NGOs like the Red Cross and some Muslim groups have joined in efforts to come to the aid of the parishioners – in both physical and financial ways.
The priest says the current major needs are material and financial support to care for the victims and the survivors. He also highlights the important need for a security strategy as police and security personnel could to get the Church during the attack, even though it lasted for some 20 minutes.
The Pentecost Sunday attack is the first of this sort in the region, even though attacks on innocent citizens are not uncommon in Nigeria. The security challenges in the country have been fueled by the activities of extremist Islamic groups and clashes between nomadic Fulani herdsmen and more stable indigenous farmers. In more recent times, bandits and kidnappers have been responsible for attacks on villages and travelers, killing some, abducting others for ransom and causing damage to property.
Fr. Abayomi notes that there have been reports of militant groups which have been mobilizing their troops in the southwest and other parts the country, but it is difficult to ascertain the tribe, race or group of the attackers.
He added that even though some people saw the gunmen, they could not identify them as the attackers did not speak. Some of the attackers, the Priest said, “disguised themselves as regular parishioners at Mass” and “worshiped with us during Mass until the attack started.”
The 5 June attack has left the parishioners of St. Francis Xavier in Owo traumatized and many are concerned and afraid to return to Church.
With this in mind, Fr. Abayomi is trying to be present to the people, keeping them strong in the faith and determined to get them back on their feet. The goal, he said, is “to establish personal contact with them, strengthening them and reminding them that when we profess our faith in God, it means that we have given up our whole life. This life is just a passage to eternity — and eternity should be our focal point.”
The assistant pastor says he has not seen a loss of faith but “a strengthening” and the people are “ready and willing to remain steadfast.” He is praying for them every day, offering Masses for the intentions of those still in the hospital and for the souls of those who have died. Masses are also being offered for the intentions of the other members of the parish, “so that they may remain steadfast in faith and alive in hope.”
By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ