The killing of priests and other Christians in Nigeria continues at an alarming rate. A recent shooting in a church in Benue State yesterday adds to the thousands of others killed in the nation in the past year alone.
Fr. Ferdinand Fanen Ngugban and at least six others were killed by gunmen in an attack on St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Benue State, Nigeria, the Diocese of Katsina-Ala confirmed Wednesday. Fr. Fanen had just offered Mass in his parish church of St. Paul Ayetwar in eastern Nigeria and was preparing to leave for the Holy Week Chrism Mass when he was shot in the head by gunmen on March 30.
Catholics in Nigeria are all too familiar with these kinds of tragedies. In March 2019, Fr. Clement Ugwu was returning to his parish when he was attacked by gunmen close to the parish house.
Members of his community who came out from their homes to see what was happening after gunshots were fired all ran for safety. A few days later, Ugwu’s body was found nearby.
The killings of Fr. Fanen and Fr. Ugwu are part of the growing attacks targeted at priests across the country. Nigerian priests currently live in fear of attacks or abduction for ransom by gunmen and even terrorists from Boko Haram, a jihadist terrorist organization.
For instance, since the insurgency started in 2009, the Boko Haram terrorists have carried out coordinated attacks on Christian communities including bombing churches, as well as abducting and killing both priests and religious. Reports say more than 30, 000 people have been killed with more than 2 million displaced from their homes.
In January 2020, Boko Haram executed pastor Lawan Andimi, who had been abducted and held in captivity for more than two weeks. Andimi was a leading official of the Christian Association of Nigeria in the region where attacks have been intense.
But gunmen and armed bandits have been largely responsible for recent attacks which sparked outrage among the Christian communities and organizations both in the country and abroad.
There have been more recent attacks also. On Jan. 16, Fr. John Gbakaan’s body was found with bruises and machete cuts. Fr. Gbakaan, a priest in the diocese of Minna, in Nigeria’s middle-belt region, was abducted alongside his brother by gunmen on their way back following a visit to his mother.
The gunmen had demanded N30 million [ around $81, 000] and later N5 million [$13, 800] for their release. Fr. Gbakaan’s brother has not been seen since Fr. Gbakaan was killed, and the attackers have not been arrested.
So Fr. Ugwu’s killing is not isolated as his diocese has witnessed several attacks and killings of priests by gunmen. Six months after the killing of Fr. Ugwu, another priest in the diocese, Fr. Paul Offu, was attacked and killed by armed men suspected to be Muslim cattle herders.
In September 2019, hundreds of priests from the diocese marched and protested along major streets in the city against the frequent abduction and killing of priests. Their protest was in the wake of the killing of Fr. Offu.
About ten priests have been killed across Nigeria by armed men and bandits since 2018.
In 2018, two priests and 17 of their parishioners in a rural community in Benue state, in Nigeria’s north central region, were killed by armed men suspected to be members of the Fulani cattle herders.
A few days after the attacks, thousands of Catholics and bishops marched along the street to protest the killing and growing insecurity in the country.
Amid the growing attacks, priests and parishioners say they are scared of going to church because they don’t know who would be the next victim.
The attacks on priests have also been worsened by the growing insecurity in the country. The government has been accused of not doing enough to protect citizens across religious and ethnic lines.
Back in 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari promised to tackle insecurity once he was elected. But security has not improved under his watch despite efforts of the military to tackle Boko Haram insurgency in northeast Nigeria.
Fr. Ugochukwu Ugwoke says insecurity in Nigeria has become a great concern and that priests feel unsafe going about their different ministries.
“I have never seen insecurity go this bad before in the country,” he said. “The present administration has not done enough to protect lives and property because even at home we are not safe and when we go out, we are also not safe.”
Fr. Ugwoke adds that the inability to arrest and prosecute the gunmen who attack priests and Christians has emboldened them to continue their killing spree.
“Today in Northern Nigeria, many people live in fear, and many young people are afraid to become pastors because pastors’ lives are in great danger,” said Rev. John Hayab of the Christian Association of Nigeria. “When bandits or kidnappers realize that their victim is a priest or pastor it seems a violent spirit takes over their hearts to demand more ransom and, in some cases, go to the extent of killing the victim. We are simply pleading with the federal government and all security agencies to do whatever it will take to bring this evil to a stop.”
In addition, foreign governments and organizations have condemned the regular attacks on Christians in Nigeria.
The UK-based Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust says more than 1000 Christians were killed in Nigeria in 2019 alone. The organization further reported that at that point 6,000 Nigerians had been killed and 12,000 displaced since 2015.
According to Open Doors’ 2021 World Watch List, more Christians were killed for their faith in Nigeria than in any other country in 2020—3,530, up from 1,350 in 2019. In overall violence, Nigeria was second only to Pakistan, while it trailed only China in the number of churches attacked or closed at 270, according to the report.
Last year, the United States designated Nigeria as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom, alongside China, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. This designation is for nations that engage in or tolerate “systemic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.” If they fail to improve their records, sanctions can follow.
The Vatican has reacted to the attacks on priests with Pope Francis calling for prayers over insecurity in the country.
“Let us also seek intercession for all the situations in the world that are most in need of hope: hope for peace, for justice, hope for a dignified life,” Pope Francis said in his Angelus broadcast through his official Twitter handle. “Today, I would like to pray in particular for the population of the northern region of Nigeria, victims of violence and terrorist attacks,” he said.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!