By Shannon Mullen
Washington D.C., Jul 6, 2022 / 09:36 am
Jude Arogundade was serving as a parish priest in upstate New York on Sept. 11, 2001 when a pair of hijacked airliners brought down the Twin Towers.
Along the Hudson River, a short drive from his parish, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Elmsford, a mile-square village in Westchester County, he could see the dark plume of ash and smoke rising from Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan.
Friends and family back in his native Nigeria flooded him with calls. Was he safe? What was happening? In the days and weeks that followed, priests in the Archdiocese of New York were inundated with grieving families and huge crowds at Masses. Shaken and afraid, people filled the pews and jammed the side aisles. They came seeking consolation, healing, answers, and sometimes a miracle.
In some ways, that experience nearly 21 years ago helped prepare Arogundade, now the bishop of the Diocese of Ondo in southwestern Nigeria, for what he calls his personal 9/11.
It happened this past June 5. On that Pentecost Sunday morning, a group of armed men attacked a parish in his diocese, St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, in Owo, a city of more than 200,000 people.
The assailants, some of whom sat through the Mass pretending to be worshippers, sprang into action toward the end of the service, detonating explosives and spraying bullets into the congregation.
Some who ran from the church were cut down by gunmen waiting outside. Others trapped inside survived by lying still amid lifeless bodies, pretending to be dead.
At least 40 people were killed, and dozens wounded. A full month later, there is still no precise tally of the dead, partly because relatives came and retrieved their loved ones before the authorities could conduct a thorough accounting.
Arogundade, whose bishop’s residence is a half-hour’s drive from Owo in Akure, walked through the bloodstained church soon after the attack, which he believes was the work of radicalized Muslim Fulani bandits who have committed terror attacks elsewhere in Nigeria.
“The smell of the blood and everything went into my head,” he recalled. “In fact, at this moment, I can perceive the blood.”
What he witnessed inside the church that day, and later at the hospital and morgue, has set his life on a new course, thrusting the former New Yorker and Fordham graduate school alumnus into the international spotlight as an outspoken critic of President Muhammadu Buhari, a retired army officer whose father was a Fulani chieftain.
Buhari’s government, in power since 2015, has been accused by Amnesty International and other human rights groups of ineptitude, indifference, and even complicity in the surge of raids, killings, kidnappings, and rapes targeting Catholics and other Christians in the African nation of more than 200 million people.
Even amid this wave of bloodshed, the Pentecost Sunday massacre stands out as an ominous outlier because it took place in the relatively peaceful southwestern part of the country that, until now, has been spared the violence destabilizing the north. Arogundade believes the attack to be part of a broader movement to establish an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria, which is roughly one-half Muslim.
As with the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the church killings called for quick action, deep reserves of compassion, and tireless pastoral leadership in the face of an overwhelming human tragedy.
“Immediately, I saw a mission entrusted to me,” Arogundade, 60, told CNA. “My first thought was, ‘I can really do something about this. I can really bring a further awareness to this. I can reach out to many places.’ And at that point I was ready to talk to anybody who cared to listen to me.”
He recognized that as a naturalized U.S. citizen with years of experience and numerous contacts in the United States, he was well positioned to raise awareness about the genocide he believes is underway in Nigeria, in hopes of enlisting the help of the U.S. government to stop it before it’s too late. Among the first to offer Arogundade his support was the leader of his former archdiocese, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York.
Last week, that mission brought Arogundade to Washington, D.C., where he was a guest of the nonprofit Catholic organization Aid to the Church in Need and a featured speaker at the International Religious Freedom Summit. The three-day event shone a light on cases of religious persecution going on throughout the world.
The soft-spoken bishop delivered a blunt and sobering message. “What’s going on now is genocide,” he told CNA. “It’s pure ethno-religious cleansing. That’s what it is. And it’s getting worse.”
Arogundade said the Buhari government must do more to protect innocent civilians. He said he hoped his discussions with lawmakers in Washington would raise pressure on the Nigerian leaders “to be proactive and to even seek help if they cannot manage the situation.”
Nigerian authorities have said the church attack bore the markings of a Nigerian ISIS affiliate, not Fulani herdsmen. Security experts are skeptical, however, noting that the group hasn’t claimed responsibility for the attack. No arrests have been made.
Whoever the culprits are, the attack underscores the fact that Nigeria is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a Christian. More than 4,650 Christians were killed there last year, roughly 13 per day, or about one killing every two hours, according to a report by the watchdog group Open Doors. That number represented 80% of such deaths the group recorded worldwide over a 12-month reporting period.
Yet U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, without explanation, last year removed Nigeria from a list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) so designated because of severe violations of religious freedom. The current list names Burma, People’s Republic of China, Eritrea, Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. The 2022 list is currently under review.
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Arogundade also has spoken out against attempts to explain these attacks as being rooted in a clash over shrinking resources due to the effects of climate change, or to a combination of complex factors.The president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, appeared to suggest as much when he said after the Pentecost Sunday massacre “that such an attack was made in a place of worship is a source of particular condemnation, as is any attempt to scapegoat pastoral peoples who are among the foremost victims of the consequences of climate change.”
Alerted to Higgins’ statement, Arogundade fired off one of his own.
“While thanking the Honorable Mr. Higgins for joining others to condemn the attack and offering his sympathy to the victims, his reasons for this gruesome massacre are incorrect and far-fetched,” Arogundade said in a message dated June 10.
“To suggest or make a connection between victims of terror and consequences of climate change is not only misleading but also exactly rubbing salt to the injuries of all who have suffered terrorism in Nigeria,” he said.
“The victims of terrorism are of another category to which nothing can be compared! It is very clear to anyone who has been closely following the events in Nigeria over the past years that the underpinning issues of terror attacks, banditry, and unabated onslaught in Nigeria and in the Sahel Region and climate change have nothing in common.”
Born in Oka-Akoko, Nigeria, Arogundade was ordained a priest in 1990. He came to the United States in 1997 to attend graduate school at New York’s Fordham University. He earned a master’s degree in religious education and later a doctoral degree in education administration.
During his studies, he served as the parish administrator at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. “My years there were my finest years,” he recalls fondly. “I still have many friends there.”
“We just fell in love with him,” said Elmsford Mayor Bob Williams, a parishioner and close friend. “He’s just an amazing man.”
Parishioners were at once sad and intensely proud when Pope Benedict XVI named Arogundade the next bishop of Ondo in 2010. Before he returned to Nigeria, he vowed to come back regularly, and he’s kept his promise, returning every May to preside over the parish’s confirmations.
Inspired by Arogundade, numerous parishioners have gone on mission trips to Nigeria, so they feel a personal connection to what is going on there now. When news spread about the Pentecost Sunday attack, the bishop’s phone was flooded with text messages from friends in the U.S. concerned for his safety, similar to what happened to him on 9/11.
Arogundade’s outspokenness and strong leadership since then come as little surprise to his former flock.
“He’s all about doing the right thing. And he’s all about, ‘No, if this is wrong, I’m going to speak out about it,’” Williams said. “And he would never, ever think about his safety.”
Arogundade’s words may be having an effect. Before he left Washington, five Republican U.S. senators signed a letter to Blinken calling on the secretary of state to re-designate Nigeria as a Country of Particular Concern.
“Despite public statements from you and other State Department officials condemning the recent bloodshed in Nigeria, the fact remains that the Department still does not officially regard Nigeria as a severe violator of religious freedom,” the letter said. It was signed by Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Mike Braun of Indiana, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma.
Arogundade said he knows that continuing to speak out places him at greater personal risk back in Nigeria. “I’m not afraid,” he said. This is his mission now.
“What happened was my own September 11th. I have to bring awareness to that,” the bishop said.
“People of goodwill, people of character, must rise up and fight September 11th,” he said, “wherever it occurs.”
Bishop Arogundade’s friends in New York have started a Go Fund Me drive to raise money for the needs of St. Francis Xavier Church and the victims of the Pentecost Sunday attack. To make a donation, click here, or send a contribution to P.O. Box 8, Elmsford, NY 10523, Attention: Owo Fund.
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By Shannon Mullen