Gunmen stormed a Catholic church in southwestern Nigeria on Sunday, killing up to 50 people, including women and children, according to reports from local officials.
Witnesses told local reporters that the gunmen detonated explosives before opening fire on worshipers gathered for worship on Pentecost Sunday. Authorities were still calculating the death toll on Monday.
The brutal attack on St. Francis Xaiver Catholic Church in the town of Owo is the latest in a long line of violence against Christians in Africa’s most populous nation.
Sunday’s assault stunned a part of the country that had largely escaped such violence in recent years.
But Sunday’s assault stunned a part of the country that had largely escaped such violence in recent years – and it raised fears that violence could spread to corners once considered peaceful.
In March, the persecution watchdog Open Doors International reported that more Christians had been killed for their faith in Nigeria than in any other country in 2021. The group estimated that more than 4,650 believers had been murdered.
For years, the most widespread attacks have been in northeast Nigeria, as the Islamist terrorist group Boko Harm has carried out a relentless campaign of violence against Christians and churches in the region.
The 2014 abduction of 276 girls from a boarding school in the northeastern state of Chibok sparked international outrage for weeks, but attention has slowly shifted away from the Nigerian violence and attacks on Christians continued.
In 2015, rocky roads through the hills of northern Nigeria revealed a landscape of burned churches and looted homes. In many cases, roving militants had scaled church structures to pull down crosses before burning down buildings.
But while the churches were in ashes, believers returned to worship.
But while the churches were in ashes, believers returned to worship. Some gathered in makeshift huts built from trees felled by young church members. Others have installed chairs in the envelope of their burned buildings.
In a temporary shelter built by a congregation in the town of Gombi, worshipers hung a banner next to their destroyed church, announcing the theme of their Romans summer Bible study: “We are more than conquerors”.
About the list
In the years that followed, the killings and kidnappings continued, along with the rise of other insurgents, including a terrorist group called the Islamic State of West Africa Province. Christian farmers have also come under attack from Fulani herders in the northern and southern regions of the country.
In December 2020, the US State Department designated Nigeria as a country particularly concerned about serious violations of religious freedoms – a decision considered long overdue by many persecution experts.
USCIRF officials said they were dismayed by Nigeria’s removal from the State Department’s list of countries of particular concern.
A year later, the Biden administration removed Nigeria from the list, a move many found baffling. Commissioners for the United States Council for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said they were “appalled” by Nigeria’s removal from the list.
USCIRF urged the State Department to put Nigeria back on the list, based on the agency’s own reports: The State Department’s 2021 Nigeria Report noted that “various sources have stated that the government had failed to take significant steps to address insecurity, including ethno-religious violence, across the country. .”
The report included a litany of examples of violence against Christians, including Boko Haram militants who abducted and beheaded a Christian pastor in January 2021.
Struck, but not destroyed
As news of Sunday’s attack on the Catholic church in southwestern Nigeria broke, local officials lamented the violence that gripped their pocket of relative peace. State Governor Arakunrin Akeredolu called it “Black Sunday in Owo”.
But despite these Black Sundays in Owo and other parts of Nigeria, Christians continue to gather for worship, often in large numbers, navigating the risks they take with the certainty of the gospel.
As one pastor in northern Nigeria said after his church was burned down and 40 members were killed by Boko Haram militants: “God was not wrong in placing us here. It’s our heart’s desire that the church stay here until Christ returns.