Dozens of devotees feared dead in gunmen attack on Nigerian church

Lagos, Nigeria – Gunmen with explosives stormed a Catholic church in southwest Nigeria on Sunday and opened fire, killing “many” worshipers and wounding others, government and police said.

Violence at St Francis Catholic Church in the city of Owo in Ondo state erupted during a morning service in a rare attack in Nigeria’s southwest, where jihadists and criminal gangs operate in other areas.

Adelegbe Timilene, who represents the Owo region in Nigeria’s lower legislative chamber, said the presiding priest was also abducted.

Officials did not immediately release an official death toll. Timilen said at least 50 people had died, although others put the figure at higher. In what appears to be a video from the scene of the attack, worshipers of the church are seen lying in a pool of blood while those around them mourn.

Pope Francis said in a statement that he had learned of the “deaths of dozens of believers,” several children, during the celebration of Pentecost Sunday.

“While the details of the incident are being clarified, Pope Francis prays for the victims and the country,” he said.

State officials move wounded victims to a hospital bed after gunmen attacked St. Francis Catholic Church in Owo city, southwest Nigeria, on June 5, 2022. (AFP)

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The motive and the exact death toll were not immediately clear, but President Muhammadu Buhari condemned the “heinous killing of worshipers”.

State police spokeswoman Ibukun Odunlami said gunmen also attacked the church with explosives.

“I was walking through the area when I heard a loud explosion and gunshots inside the church,” said a witness, who named himself Abayomi.

He said he saw at least five gunmen in the church premises before running to safety.

‘Despicable and Satanic Attack’

Attacks on religious sites are particularly vulnerable in Nigeria, where tensions sometimes erupt between communities in a country with a mostly Christian south and a predominantly Muslim north.

Gun and bomb attacks are rare in Ondo state, but Nigeria’s military is battling a 12-year-old jihadist insurgency in the northeast, gangs in the northwest and a separatist movement in the southeast.

Boko Haram jihadist groups in the northeast have targeted churches in the past as part of Nigeria’s conflict, which has killed 40,000 people and displaced more than 2 million.

An illustrative photo from October 31, 2014 shows Boko Haram jihadists. (Boko Haram, AP, via file)

Kidnapping attacks are common across much of Nigeria but mass gun attacks such as Sunday’s violence are rare in the country’s relatively peaceful south-west.

Ondo State Governor Rotimi Akeredolu called Sunday’s attack a “despicable and diabolical attack” and called on security forces to nab the attackers.

The attack comes a day before the ruling APC party begins primaries for its candidate in the 2023 election, replacing Buhari, a former army commander who steps down after two terms.

Security will be a major challenge for whoever wins the race to rule Africa’s most populous country and the continent’s largest economy.

Heavily armed gangs, particularly in parts of north-west and north-central Nigeria, have become increasingly plagued by mass kidnapping attacks targeting villages and communities and schools.

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