Gunmen opened fire on worshippers and detonated explosives at a St. Francis Catholic Church in Ondo state just as the worshippers gathered on Pentecost Sunday. Among the dead were many children and women. The attack took place in southwestern Nigeria on Sunday, leaving scores of dozens feared dead with an already high death count.
The presiding priest was abducted as well, said Adelegbe Timileyin, who represents the Owo area in Nigeria’s lower legislative chamber. “Our hearts are heavy,” Ondo Governor Rotimi Akeredolu tweeted Sunday. “Our peace and tranquility have been attacked by the enemies of the people.” Timileyin had said at least 50 people had been killed, though others put the figure higher. Videos appearing to be from the scene of the attack showed church worshippers lying in pools of blood while people around them wailed. The gunmen shot at people outside and inside the church building, killing and injuries worshippers, said Funmilayo Ibukun Odunlami, police spokesperson for Ondo state. A doctor at a hospital in Owo told Reuters that at least 50 bodies had been brought into two hospitals in the town from the attack. The doctor, who declined to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the press, also said there was a need for blood donations to treat the injured.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said “only fiends from the nether region could have conceived and carried out such dastardly act… No matter what, this country shall never give in to evil and wicked people, and darkness will never overcome light. Nigeria will eventually win,” said Buhari, who was elected after vowing to bring solutions to Nigeria’s prolonged security crisis.
In Rome, Pope Francis responded to news of the attack. “The pope has learned of the attack on the church in Ondo, Nigeria and the deaths of dozens of worshippers, many children, during the celebration of Pentecost. While the details are being clarified, 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,” the pope said in a statement issued by the Vatican press office.
“It is so sad that while the Holy Mass was going on, unknown gunmen attacked St Francis Catholic Church…leaving many feared dead and many others injured and the Church violated,” said Catholic Church spokesman in Nigeria, Reverend Augustine Ikwu. Ikwu said the bishop and priests from the parish had survived the attack unharmed.
It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack on the church. While much of Nigeria has struggled with security issues, Ondo is widely known as one of Nigeria’s most peaceful states. The state, though, has been caught up in a rising violent conflict between farmers and herders. Nigeria’s security forces did not immediately respond to questions about how the attack occurred or if there are any leads about suspects. Owo is about 345 kilometers (215 miles) east of Lagos.
Nigeria is battling an Islamist insurgency in the northeast and armed gangs who carry out attacks and kidnappings for ransom, mostly in the northwest. In the southwest, attacks such as this are rare.