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Gunmen with Explosives Attack Catholic Church in Nigeria

During a church service on Sunday, 5 June, gunmen armed with explosives stormed a Catholic church in the southern Nigerian town of Owo. At least 50 people are feared dead, including many children. The official death toll is still unknown.

Police authorities said that the assailants approached the church during a service at 11:30 a.m. and started shooting into St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church from outside. They also detonated explosives, Al Jazeera reported. As worshippers rushed to the exits to escape the blasts, they were met by more armed men, according to the BBC.

John Nwovu hid in the sacristy with others during the 30-minute attack, he told the BBC. An explosion blew up the ceiling above him, he said, burying him and several others who tried to keep silent while the gunmen attacked other people who were hiding under pews.

“They killed to their satisfaction before leaving,” he said.

So far, no group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Police in Ondo, the state where the attack occurred, said that an “anti-bomb squad” has been deployed to the scene, and armed and specialized police have been deployed to fortify the community and find the attackers.

“Our hearts are heavy,” said Ondo Governor Rotimi Akeredolu in a tweet on Sunday. “Our peace and tranquility have been attacked by the enemies of the people.”

According to the Associated Press, Ondo is widely known as one of the most peaceful states in Nigeria, but recent conflicts between farmers and nomadic herders have turned violent in recent years. Similar attacks to the one in Owo have happened in northern and central Nigeria for some time, but it is unclear whether these types of armed groups—locally called bandits—have moved south, Al Jazeera reported.

The church was full—worshippers had turned up to celebrate Pentecost, a Catholic holiday that celebrates the birth of the church and marks the official end of the Easter season. In addition, the first Sundays of the month are significant for orthodox Nigerian Christians since they are usually colorful thanksgivings led by families, the BBC noted. This Sunday should have been no different.

Pope Francis lamented the attack. According to a statement issued by the Vatican press office, “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.”