Nigerian Church Massacre Highlights Dire Need for International Intervention
For well over a decade, Christian believers in Nigeria have been killed, kidnapped, raped, mutilated, and driven from their homes, churches and villages, which are often torched in the aftermath.
But on Pentecost Sunday, June 6, the horror reached a terrifying new level at St. Francis Catholic Church in Owo, Ondo State.
“Streaks of blood on the floors and walls, sandals abandoned in a desperate rush to escape, a well-thumbed Bible lying among shards of glass. Those were some of the disturbing sights inside St. Francis Catholic Church in the Nigerian town…” Reuters reported, “after unknown assailants attacked the congregation with guns and explosives during Sunday mass, killing and injuring dozens of people.”
Various estimates of the death toll have ranged from 20 to as many as 50. And the tragic details are still being updated. A June 7 email from a Nigerian source to Family Research Council pleaded, “Please pray for our bishop and his people — they are sorting out funerals, while untreated victims are dying of their wounds.” Clearly, the death toll is far from complete.
Steven Omotayo, who lives near the church, rushed to the scene upon hearing the gunshots. “I saw a lot of dead bodies — both young and old, even children,” he said.
Stating that the church has three entrances, and the main entrance was locked, Omotayo explained how this made it difficult for many to escape. Meanwhile, “They were just shooting. If they see anyone trying to escape or stand up, they will just shoot the person,” he said. “Everybody standing was bombarded with bullets.”
In 2021, an FRC analysis of Nigeria’s agonizing struggle reported that around 12,000 Christians had been killed for their faith since 2015. More recently, Open Doors International, monitoring global Christian persecution, stated that “…In Nigeria, a Christian is killed for their faith every two hours; that’s nearly 13 Christians a day and 372 Christians a month. ... Research for the 2022 World Watch List reveals that in 2021, more Christians were murdered for their faith in Nigeria than in any other country. Last year, Nigeria accounted for nearly 80% of Christian deaths worldwide, with more than 4,650 believers killed.”
David Curry is president and CEO of Open Doors USA and was recently appointed to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). In a “Washington Watch” interview with Tony Perkins following the church attack he explained, “Nigeria is very violent. Most of the violence takes place in the north part of the country. But in this case the attackers are breaking from their usual pattern and attacked a church in the southwest. I think the key thing here is that these extremists have been allowed to flourish in the north and the government has not taken strong responsive action. I think they’re culpable in these kinds of attacks because they’ve allowed the Fulani terrorist groups to grow. They’ve let them attack, murder, and seize villages without any sort of retribution or punishment.”
The best-known extremist groups in Nigeria are the notorious Boko Haram, which has recently merged with Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Meanwhile, radical Islamist Fulani tribesmen have been slaughtering Christian villagers in increasing numbers for several years. These Fulani radicals attacked St. Francis Church in the horrifying Pentecost Sunday incident, arriving on motorcycles and armed with guns and explosives.
“At home, people do not sleep with two eyes closed because of the fear of being attacked by gunmen,” Priest Ugochukwu Ugwoke laments. “Today is the third day since the attack on the innocent worshippers of St. Francis Catholic Church took place, yet no arrest has been made. It is surprising that an attack of such magnitude happened…and the terrorists just strolled out of the town without any traces.” Ugwoke concluded, “Nowhere is safe be it at home, in the market, in the streets, in the farms and even in the house of God.”
Nigeria is a nation with tremendous potential — the largest and most populous, prosperous country in Africa. It has immense natural resources and a thriving economy. Yet it continues to be ripped apart by unmitigated violence. For this reason, in 2020 then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Nigeria a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), providing the U.S. with significant options to address the surging religious violence. Yet, without explanation, less than a year later, the Biden administration removed the CPC designation.
In the Wall Street Journal on June 7, David Curry appealed to President Joe Biden to take action in Nigeria regarding the CPC designation:
“Given the carnage at St. Francis Xavier Church, the president should redesignate Nigeria immediately,” he wrote. “… Mr. Biden has the opportunity to send a clear signal that the U.S. won’t stand by as the innocent faithful are persecuted. He should make the redesignation and enforce sanctions without delay.”
Lela Gilbert is Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom at Family Research Council and Fellow at Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom.