On April 24, 2018, Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha were presiding over an early morning mass for about 50 parishioners at St. Ignatius Catholic Church in a village in north central Nigeria.
About 20 minutes into the service, gunmen, suspected to be from the largely Muslim Fulani ethnic group, stormed the parish and opened fire on the congregation. Nineteen people were killed, including both priests. The gunmen also razed houses, destroyed crops, and left the community in a state of chaos.
After the attack, bishops, priests, and thousands of residents demonstrated to protest the killings. The protesters called on the Nigerian government to arrest and prosecute the killers.
Three years later, no one has been arrested or prosecuted.
“Our community was shocked and in fear after the killing, and many people stopped going to church for some time,” said Paul Anyakan, a parishioner who lives some miles away from where the attack happened. “When you go to the farm, you are scared of being attacked or killed, and when you go to the house of God, the same thing happens. Nowhere is safe.”
The killing of the two priests at St. Ignatius was not an isolated incident. It used to be unheard of for a member of the clergy to be attacked—in Nigeria, the office of a pastor is regarded as sacred, and even a minor verbal attack is seen as instigating God’s wrath. But in recent years, this has changed. About 20 priests and other clergy members have been killed or attacked by members of the terrorist organization Boko Haram alone.
Nigeria, a nation of more than 200 million people, is deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines. Islamic extremists have specifically targeted Christian communities as a way of pushing a Shari’a law agenda. In 2000, more than 3,000 people—mostly Christians in northern Nigeria—were killed and more than 60,000 displaced after the imposition of Islamic law in the region.
The current surge of attacks on priests has reportedly been carried out by Muslim Fulani herders, bandits, Boko Haram insurgents, and the Islamic State’s West African Province. (Since its split from Boko Haram in 2016, ISWAP has become a dominant jihadist group in the region.) The attacks have ignited tensions between Christians and Muslims.
The most recent clergy killing sparked outrage across the country. On January 15, John Gbakaan, a priest at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Gulu, was abducted with his brother while they were traveling to visit their mother. The gunmen initially demanded 30 million naira (US$78,750) and later 5 million naira (US$13,200) in ransom money from Gbakaan’s diocese, the Diocese of Minna, for the release of the two men, which the diocese refused to pay.
The next day, Gbakaan’s body was found, covered in machete cuts. No one has been arrested in connection with the murder, and the priest’s brother has not yet been found.
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SOURCE: The Christian Century, Patrick Egwu