June 6 2022

MartyrsAndrea Riccardi

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A bloody Pentecost occurred in the southwestern part of Nigeria, specifically at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, which is located in the city of Owo: at the end of a Sunday mass, which is usually accompanied by considerably singing and was packed with the believers, an armed group entered to shoot and throw bombs. The feast of Pentecost, which is when Christians celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, was marred by a sudden terrorist attack that targeted the Catholics in prayer. At least 50 people died, including several children. The number of wounded is unknown. The terrorists escaped by kidnapping some Catholics. The attack has not yet been claimed. Owo, which is a city of more than 200,000 inhabitants, is located in Ondo State. It is inhabited mostly by Yoruba, which is a population that has converted to Christianity from animism since the 1800s. The Yoruba population is about 40 million and they are spread in places that are beyond Nigeria such as in locations that are not far away from Benin, Togo, and Sierra Leone. In the past, there has been violence between the Fulani (called peul in French), who are devoted to pastoralism, and the settled farmers. This brutality occurs because desertification pushes the pastoralists in the South to look for food for their herds. Fulani, who are in part located in West Africa and they are in close contact with radical Islamism, has historically played an important role in spreading Islam in the region. The organization that is representing the Youruba argued the attack was aimed against them and the state's governor who protects their interests. The governor urged the people to stay calm and he asked them to not take justice into their own hands. However, it is presumable this is an Islamist-inspired terrorist organization. The bishop of Ondo appealed for calm and to continue praying for peace. The tension is high because there is increasing violence in the country that is fomented by armed and terrorist groups that are targeting Christians. A week ago, the head of the Nigerian Methodist Church was kidnapped along with two pastors in the southeast of the country. Their release came with a ransom.

Two weeks ago, two Catholic priests were kidnapped in Katsina, which is situated in the northern part of the country and is where President Buhari (a Muslim) comes from. The two Catholic priests’ release is still awaited. The situation of anti-Christian violence from the North, where it is partly endemic, is also taking root in the South of Nigeria: now kidnappings and attacks are taking place in many regions of this huge country (53% Muslim, 46% Christian, of which 11% of the total are Catholic). The feeling of the Christian communities (Catholic, but also Anglican and Protestant) is that terrorism against Christians is not effectively prosecuted by the central and regional authorities; on the contrary, it is now developing within a framework of near impunity. Boko Haram, Islamic State groups, terrorist gangs, and criminals make life now unsafe due to a web of religious and ethnic motivations. Christians feel unsafe in the face of the federal government, where the presence of Muslims and northern Nigerians is strong. Traditionally, the government has stood on a balance between the Islamic and Christian components, but also in the North and South of the country, by guaranteeing in this way the different population groups. The Holy See is following the Nigerian situation with concern, especially because the religious peace between Christians and Muslims is precious for the stability of the country and Africa. In the last consistory, Pope Francis appointed a Nigerian cardinal, Peter Okpaleke, who was rejected by the priests and believers of a diocese because he belongs to a different ethnic group than the majority. Bergoglio, with his appointment, wanted to give a sign that the Church must overcome this logic.


The reality is that sometimes it is a risk to go to Mass on Sundays in Nigeria. The festive liturgical assemblies, which African Christians animate with their intense and special spirit, become places of sudden violence. It is vile brutality because it is directed at people in prayer, who are unarmed and not at all aggressive. Unfortunately, this happens in so many parts of the world: from Egypt to Pakistan or other countries, where unarmed Christians are affected. In the mass that was celebrated in Owo, the priest wore red liturgical robes as in all the masses of this feast. These are the same ones that the Church uses in the memorials of martyrs. Therefore, the victims of this bloody Pentecost in Nigeria are unknown martyrs of persecution. An oppression that does not cease.



Andrea Riccardi