Lagos, Nigeria – On Monday, Over 50 people were killed in an attack by armed men on Sunday at a church in Saint Francis Parish, Owo town, Ondo state, Nigeria.
The Catholic Laymen's Council of Nigeria (CLCN) confirmed that they were parishioners of Saint Francis Catholic Church, and were killed by armed men suspected of being bandits," the CLCN President Henry Yunkwap said.
Mass had just ended and the choir was singing the closing hymns, waiting for the priest to proceed out of the church when the first gunshot rang out.
"This barbaric act was carried out by animals in human form," he stressed indignantly, adding that "the crime was double" as the victims were Christians and were "worshiping God."
Yunkwap called on the Nigerian government to arrest the killers and bring them to justice immediately, in order for the souls of the victims to rest in peace,
An official said that the gunmen first detonated explosives near the church altar before firing at the worshippers and killing scores of them on the spot. It is difficult to put a number to the casualties, as security operatives rushed to the scene to rescue worshippers.
When the shooting started outside, the wardens ran to close the doors of the church, but they could not do so in time before gunmen came in and for nearly twenty minutes, sprayed the parishioners with bullets.
At least 50 other people were killed in the attack, including children. But survivors and residents of Owo, one of the largest towns in the southwest state of Ondo, say there could be as many as 80 victims.
In the aftermath of the attack, there was a flurry of condemnations from religious and political leaders. State Governor Rotimi Akeredolu described the attack in a tweet as “vile and satanic”. President Muhammadu Buhari called for investigations and said “The country shall never give in to evil and wicked people.”
Ondu state governor Arakunrin Akeredolu said that he is "deeply saddened by the unprovoked attack and killing of innocent people of Owo."
Akeredolu urged the locals to "remain calm and vigilant" as security forces are deployed to monitor and restore normalcy to the town.
A Vatican statement said: “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 the meantime, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has condemned the attack at the church in southwestern Nigeria.
"The secretary-general condemns in the strongest terms the heinous attack in the St. Francis Catholic Church in Owo, Ondo State, on June 5 that resulted in the death and injuries of scores of civilians as people gathered for the Pentecost service," a statement from the UN Secretary General's spokesman, Stephane Dujarric said.
"The secretary-general emphasizes that attacks on places of worship are abhorrent. He urges the Nigerian authorities to spare no effort in bringing the perpetrators to justice," the statement added.
Antonio Guterres conveyed his deepest condolences to the victims' families and expressed his best wishes for a prompt recovery for those who were injured. As well, he sent his condolences and solidarity to the Nigerian government and its people.
The Nigeria Security Tracker, released by the Council on Foreign Relations, reported that at least 2,968 people were killed by armed groups in the first quarter of 2022 across the country. Eighty-six percent of those deaths were in northern Nigeria.
Locals are attributing the attack to pastoralist herdsmen, who have been involved in recurring conflicts nationwide with farmers for years, due to competition for diminishing vegetation exacerbated by ethnic and religious differences. Ondo has been caught up in this conflict.
These incidents led to the establishment of a state-backed regional vigilante outfit, Amotekun, to complement security forces in the six states of the region: Ekiti, Lagos, Ogun, Ondo, Osun and Oyo.
Last week, an explosion at a cultural festival in the central state of Kogi left two dead. Nigerian newspaper The Cable reported that the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) has claimed responsibility for the attack. In 2012 and 2014, Boko Haram attacked prisons in the state.