LAGOS, Nigeria – Local officials say dozens have been killed after attackers attacked a Catholic church in southwestern Nigeria on Sunday, firing at worshipers as they celebrated mass.
The attack on St. Francis Catholic Church in Owo, Ondo state, was the deadliest attack on a church in Nigeria in years, and brought the kind of violence usually seen in the north of the country to a relatively peaceful area of Africa’s Most Populous Nation.
The attack took place on Pentecost Sunday when dozens of believers gathered at the church. At least four attackers stormed the building, police said.
It was the first time a church had been attacked in the state of Ondo in recent years, creating a new sense of insecurity in a state that had been spared the level of violence seen elsewhere in Nigeria.
President Muhammadu Buhari, who has pledged to end insecurity in Nigeria, condemned the attack as a “cowardly act”.
No responsibility had been claimed on Sunday evening and the motive for the massacre was unclear.
Most of the attacks on churches have been in the north, but they have become less frequent than at the height of the Boko Haram insurgency around 2015. In the southwest, where the church attack took place on Sunday, kidnappings have been most frequent by ransom herders. search, and there have been conflicts with herders over new grazing restrictions.
Officials were still assessing the toll of the attack on Sunday. Videos posted on social media showed bodies lying in pools of blood between church pews.
Oluwole Ogunmolasuyi, the majority leader of Ondo’s State Assembly, went to the scene of the massacre and said he had seen at least 20 dead, many of them children. He estimated the death toll at 70 to 100.
Adelegbe Timileyin, a federal lawmaker representing the Owo area, told The Associated Press that at least 50 people had been killed.
The attack came amid renewed social and economic tensions in Nigeria, where frequent killings and kidnappings have left a deep sense of insecurity and resentment among the government ahead of the next presidential election scheduled for February.
As the mass took place around 11:30 am, armed assailants from outside the church fired at worshipers, while other gunmen aimed at people inside the building, police said in a statement Sunday night.
“It’s a black Sunday in Owo,” said Ondo’s governor, Arakunrin Akeredolu, condemn a “despicable and satanic attack” on people “who have enjoyed relative peace over the years.”
Nigeria is roughly divided between Christians who mainly live in the south and Muslims who populate the north of the country.
Much of the violence that plagues Nigeria, such as murders and kidnappings, has mainly taken place in the northwest and center of the country.
Last month, gunmen killed dozens of people in central Plateau state, and in April eight people were killed and dozens abducted on a popular train route connecting the capital Abuja to the regional hub of Kaduna in the north.
The attack, on a route that authorities claimed was a safe alternative to a highway where bandit kidnappings are the order of the day, sparked outrage among many Nigerians who blamed Mr Buhari for his inability to control the wave. to stop violence.
No group has claimed responsibility for the train attack. Authorities have said elements of the Boko Haram terrorist group had collaborated with local bandits for the attack. Dozens of passengers are still being held hostage by kidnappers.
Occasionally, violent episodes flare up between Muslims and Christians in the country. Last month, a Christian student was beaten to death and her body set on fire after fellow students accused her of sending blasphemous messages about the Prophet Mohammed in a WhatsApp group conversation.
Last week, a man was killed and burned to death in Abuja after arguing with a Muslim cleric, police said. In late May, the head of the Nigerian Methodist Church was kidnapped and released a few days later after Methodist officials said they had paid a ransom.
On Sunday after the attack on the Catholic Church of St. Francis, Ondo Governor Akeredolu also warned of vigilance in response to the attack.
Ben Ezeamalu reported from Lagos, Nigeria, and Elian Peltier from Dakar, Senegal.