Nothing Was Usual About Pentecost Massacre In Nigeria

Coffins are pictured during a une 17, 2022, memorial service for victims killed during an attack by gunmen during a June 5 mass at St. Francis Catholic Church, in Owo, Ondo, Nigeria. 

The massacre occurred during a Sunday mass, but it wasn’t an ordinary Sunday — this was the great feast of Pentecost, which marks the end of the Easter season.

What’s more, the gunmen didn’t strike in tense northern Nigeria, where Christian communities are isolated in a majority-Muslim region. This 30-minute attack was inside St. Francis Catholic Church, located in the safer southwestern state of Ondo.

While 40 worshippers were confirmed dead, including five children, the number was almost certainly higher since many families buried their dead privately. Another 100 were wounded.

The scope of this attack was “unique,” especially in southern Nigeria, but “this violence ... was not unique in its occurrence,” stressed Stephen Rasche, senior fellow at the independent Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C. “These types of murders are taking place weekly, almost daily, in Nigeria — murders of innocent Christians, being gunned down, slaughtered indiscriminately, throughout the north and, increasingly, into the central part of Nigeria and into the south.”

Human-rights activists are trying to document the bloodshed. According to the nondenominational watchdog group Open Doors, the 4,650 Christians killed in Nigeria during 2021 accounted for 80% of such deaths worldwide — nearly 13 murders per day. Nigeria’s Christian death toll has topped 60,000 over the past two decades.

Nevertheless, this year’s International Religious Freedom Report from the U.S. State Department said the “Secretary of State determined that Nigeria did not meet the criteria to be designated as a Country of Particular Concern for engaging in or tolerating particularly severe violations of religious freedom or as a Special Watch List country for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom.”

It’s understandable that news reports about Nigeria have faded, in part because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and pressing global economic issues, said Rasche, who visited Nigerian churches during this Holy Week and Easter.

Also, many Western leaders view atrocities in Nigeria as clashes between Christian farmers and Muslim cattle herders, with climate-change issues erasing safety zones between these groups. Hours after the Pentecost massacre, Ireland’s President Michael Higgins said an attack on “a place of worship is a source of particular condemnation, as is any attempt to scapegoat pastoral peoples who are among the foremost victims of the consequences of climate change.”

Bishop Jude Arogundade of the Ondo Diocese said these were painful words, especially since the attack occurred in a sanctuary built by Irish missionaries. The bishop wrote: “To suggest or make a connection between victims of terror and consequences of climate change is not only misleading but also exactly rubbing salt to the injuries of all who have suffered terrorism in Nigeria. ... The victims of terrorism are of another category to which nothing can be compared.”

While these debates rage on, Rasche said Christians in Nigeria have continued to appeal for help, collecting thousands of photographs and videos as evidence for examination by government officials, business leaders, religious groups and nonprofit agencies.

The bloody realities on the ground in Nigeria “should not be news to anyone at the State Department, to anybody at the British Foreign Office, to anybody in the European Union,” he said. “These photos are easily available on social media, and one has to ask whether or not anyone is actually making an effort to look at the truth.”

The harsh reality is that Nigeria’s tradition of shared power between the Muslim North and the Christian South has broken down in recent years. This is crucial since the nation’s population of more than 206 million is almost equally divided between Muslims and Christians.

Nigerian officials blamed the St. Francis attack on the Islamic State West Africa Province, which has ties to the terrorist group Boko Haram, while avoiding references to networks of politically powerful Fulani herdsmen.

In response, said Rasche, many Nigerian Christians simply “throw up their hands,” because they no longer trust their own government or the leaders of the United States and the European Union.

“They don’t look at us ... as being serious about any of these things,” he said. “They are completely disillusioned that the U.S. government is going to have any kind of effective role to play. ... They’ve just given up that anybody in the West is going to come to their aid.”

Terry Mattingly leads and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.