Church and government officials in Nigeria have confirmed two priests were among the at least 15 people killed on Tuesday when gunmen attacked a Catholic church in Ayar-Mbalom, a community in Benue state.
It is located in Nigeria’s “Middle Belt” where the Muslim north meets the Christian south. Over the past few years, Muslim Fulani herdsmen have attacked mostly-Christian farmers in the region in violence that has both religious and ethnic undertones.
Father Moses Iorapuu, the Director of Communications for the Diocese of Makurdi, identified the murdered priests as Father Joseph Gor and Father Felix Tyolaha of St. Ignatius Catholic Church. The attack happened during the early morning Mass.
Gor had earlier written on Facebook: “Living in fear. The fulani herdsmen are still around us in Mbalom. They refuse to go. They still go grazing around us. No weapons to depend on ourselves.”
Iorapuu said the herdsmen attacked “in their classic style,” burning down homes, destroying food, and killing people.
“The police seem to know nothing of the attacks which have been going on in other villages within Benue State since the Anti Open Grazing Law came into effect last year,” the priest said.
The laws were meant to encourage the setting up of cattle ranches, in order to stop the conflict between the herdsmen and farmers, but since the herdsmen often travel between states – some of which have the laws, and others which do not – conflicts have continued.
Over 100 people have been killed by Fulani herdsmen since the beginning of the year.
A Benue state official said 50 homes were destroyed in the latest attack, which Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari called “vile, evil and satanic.”
Iorapuu said in a statement given to the press that, “It has been the goal of the jihadists to conquer Benue and Tiv people who resisted their advance into the middle-belt since 1804.”
The priest accused the rest of the country of having little sympathy for the Benue people, and expressed his fears that the violence will cause thousands of people in the state to be displaced.
He also noted the good the local Catholic Church has been doing in the area.
“The diocese has been active in providing relief materials including education and skills acquisition lessons,” Iorapuu said.
“To go for the priests means total destruction of everything we stand for and believe in!”