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ROME – Pope Francis expressed his concern Sunday for a deadly shooting at a Catholic church in Nigeria on the feast of Pentecost that left somewhere between 25 and 50 people dead; the attackers kidnapped a priest and several others, as well. The pope said he was praying for “the victims and the country.”
“While the details of what happened are clarified, Pope Francis is praying for the victims and the country, sorrowfully struck in a moment of celebration, and entrusts both to the Lord, so that he sends His Spirit to console them,” a Vatican statement said.
On Sunday, in the town of Owo in southwest Nigeria, an unknown number of armed men entered St Francis church during morning Mass. They fired into the congregation, then kidnapped a priest and some other churchgoers, witnesses said.
No terrorist group has claimed responsibility so far for the deadly attack, which took place as Catholics around the world celebrated the feast of Pentecost.
Rotimi Akeredolu, the governor of Ondo state where the event took place, called it a “vile and satanic attack” on innocent people.
Releasing few details as to what happened, the governor tweeted a series of comments, appealing in one of them for calm, urging people not to “take laws into your hands.”
“We shall commit every available resource to hunt down these assailants and make them pay,” he added. “We will never bow to the machinations of heartless elements in our resolve to rid our state of criminals.”
Africa’s most populous country has witnessed an increase in attacks and kidnappings for ransom by armed gangs, mostly in Nigeria’s northwest.
Local media reported that some victims were transported to a nearby hospital in serious condition.
“The cowardly and satanic attack is a calculated assault on the peace-loving people of Owo Kingdom, who have enjoyed relative peace over the years,” the Ondo governor said, saying that this is “a black Sunday for Owo.”
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The attack comes as violence increases in Nigeria. Four reasons stand out for concern: Muslim terrorist organization Boko Haram continuing to terrorize the northern region; banditry growing rampant in the northwest region; mafia-like organizations kidnapping people for ransom in the central part of the country; and clashes between mostly Muslim nomadic herders and farmers – both Muslim and Christian –in the middle belt of Nigeria and throughout the Sahel region.
According to Archbishop Matthew Man-oso Ndagoso of Kaduna, in the 14 years since Boko Haram exploded on the scene in northern Nigeria, the systemic violence has worsened and reports of the terrorist organization and bandits joining forces is true; one has knowledge of explosive materials, while the others have the logistics to perpetrate attacks. For example, a recent attack on a train left eight dead and dozens gravely wounded.
“These things have made life in the country terrible,” Ndagoso said last week. “People cannot leave their homes, but they are not safe if they stay indoors either, nor are they safe in the roads. Not even in the air are people safe: Two months ago, the bandits attacked a plane on the tarmac, which means there were no flights into Kaduna, a hub for flights.” This lasted almost seven weeks, with flights resuming in recent days.
Nigeria’s Christian communities have been in the crosshairs for years. A week ago, the head of a Methodist church was kidnapped along with two other clergymen in the southeast of the country, for whose release a ransom of about $300,000 was demanded.
Two weeks ago, two Catholic priests were kidnapped in Katsina, President Muhammadu Buhari’s home state, and are still being held hostage.