As Christians across Nigeria rallied for peace, several bishops took part in the funeral service for the 19 people murdered in an attack on a Catholic Church last April. (Credit: courtesy to Crux.)

ROME – After the murder of 19 people at a Catholic Church, including two priests, Christians in Nigeria mobilized on Tuesday, urging the president to help “end the killings” because the “clock is ticking, and the bomb must be defused quickly.”

The rallies took place simultaneously in different cities across the country, on the same day those murdered by Muslim Fulani herdsmen in late April were buried.

In different statements, bishops spoke of “ethnic cleansing,” described people living in “palpable fear,” said that Christians are being “massacred,” and that human life is worth less than cattle in parts of Nigeria and warned of falling into “anarchy” if the government fails to bring peace.

They also accused President Muhammadu Buhari of being complicit in an agenda to “Islamize” Nigeria, after failing to protect Christians who are not allowed to build churches in rural areas or recover girls who are kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam.

Tens of thousands participated in the rallies that took place across the country, carrying signs such as “We are peace-loving people, stop attacking our churches,” “stop the Christian genocide,” “enough of bloodshed in Nigeria,” “life is precious, a gift from God,” and “we say no to the killings of Christians in Nigeria.”

In a statement by Cardinal John Onaiyekan read at the rally in Abuja by one of his auxiliary bishops, he called on Buhari to fulfill his campaign promises of ending the killings and to treat all citizens equally.

“We remind you that the rampaging squads of terrorist herdsmen who have turned Nigeria into a killing field seem to be above the law,” Onaiyekan said. “We have not heard of any arrests or prosecution of these murderers, who continue to amuse themselves with the blood of innocent Nigerians.”

The violence seen in attacks such as the one on April 24 is often fueled by ethnic and religious undertones, as well as grazing rights and dwindling amounts of fertile land.

Over the past several months, there’s been an upsurge in violent confrontation between armed herders and unarmed farmers, with the Fulani killing more than 100 people since the beginning of the year.

According to the cardinal, there’s no Nigerian who “goes to bed with his two eyes closed,” because those who do are “murdered in their sleep.”

Still addressing Buhari, who wasn’t present at the rally, Onaiyekan said that the basis of the government is the safety of the citizens. “We are not asking for too much,” he said.

“Mr. President, when will the killings end? The clock is ticking, and the bomb must be defused quickly,” he said in the statement sent to Crux.

In the diocese of Warri, an oil hub in South Nigeria, thousands rallied too. The diocese released a statement on Tuesday, decreed by the bishops’ conference to be one of “prayer and solemn, peaceful, prayerful procession and demonstration against the incessant killings in all parts of Nigeria.”

“We say with a loud voice, enough is enough,” the statement by Bishop John Oke Afareha said.

According to Afareha, the fear and insecurity in Nigeria are “palpable and unacceptable,” and even though Catholics can’t take up arms to defend themselves, “we can arm ourselves with prayer and voice our displeasure to the government, even as we challenge them to rise up to their constitutional responsibility of safeguarding the life and property of all Nigerians everywhere and at all times.”

All life is sacred, the bishop said, irrespective of tribe, creed or political affiliations, and as such, it must be protected and cherished.

He also urged the government to “deploy its machinery without complicity” to stop the bloodletting and the killings, bringing to justice these “enemies of peace and save Nigeria from anarchy.”

“As the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church, so may the lives of these victims be the seed of restoration of peace, unity and responsible governance in our country,” Afareha said.

Archbishop Alfred Adewale Martins of Lagos released an “open letter” to Buhari, signing it in the name of the three million Catholics in his diocese.

He denounced the rising attacks by herdsmen, who are no longer satisfied, he said, with attacking farms and feeding their cattle with the produce of someone else’s work, but are now attacking people in their places of worship.

“If it was [Islamic terrorist organization] Boko Haram, as we know it, it would have been sad but not as alarming as when so-called herdsmen are the ones perpetrating these crimes,” Martins said.

“Innocent people are now being murdered at will and their means of livelihood forcefully taken from them,” Martins continued. “Children are being turned to orphans, wives to widows, husbands to widowers. Communities are being wiped away in manners that can only be likened to ethnic cleansing.”

Human life, he lamented, has less value than cattle in Nigeria.

Despite the country’s constitution that guarantees freedom of worship, Martins said it doesn’t apply in some parts of the country, particularly in Southern Kaduna and the north central region of Nigeria, where Christians are being “massacred, displaced from their ancestral lands and treated as second class citizens.”

The prelate also stated that in many rural areas, Christians are not allowed to build churches nor worship God in peace, and girls are kidnapped and then never released because they refused to deny their faith and convert to Islam.

“Unfortunately, incidents such as these have led to the fear of an agenda to Islamize Nigeria,” Martins wrote. “Permit me to say, Your Excellency, that you are often accused of being in support of this agenda.”

The bishop also says that even though the Catholic Church in Nigeria has always advocated peace, religious tolerance and inter-religious dialogue, providing an atmosphere for dialogue and national cohesion, it has too frequently been “at the receiving end of attacks,” with the “callous killings” in Benue State being but the last.

“Mr. President, we have been provoked far too many times and now we say again, ‘Enough is enough,’” he said, by way of warning, yet toning it down by adding that they will continue to promote peace “in obedience to the teachings of Jesus Christ,” and also conscious of what Mahatma Gandhi allegedly preached: “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”

Addressing Buhari directly, Martins wrote that their call for the president’s intervention is born of the fear that the crisis could snowball into “ethnic, tribal or religious war.”