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Nigerian church attack represents new turn in war against Christians, says expert



John Burger - published on 06/06/22

Death toll from Sunday Mass shooting now over 80.

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The attack on a Catholic Mass in Nigeria Sunday morning – with the death toll now at over 80 worshipers – represents a troubling development in the ongoing saga of Islamist violence against Christians, says an American expert on persecution in Africa.

Gunmen stormed a church in Owo in Nigeria’s Ondo state on the feast of Pentecost. They shot at people outside and inside St. Francis Church, killing and injuring worshippers, said Funmilayo Ibukun Odunlami, police spokesperson for Ondo state. She said police were investigating the cause of the attack.

While an official statement has not yet been issued on who was responsible, but might soon be forthcoming, many observers strongly suspect the attack was carried out by Fulani herdsmen, who have a long history of conflict with Nigerian Christians. 

If that is the case, the attack represents a new and worrying development, said Stephen Rasche, Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom Policy at the Religious Freedom Institute.

“The people within the Church on the ground all believe that these are a continuation of the Fulani Muslim herders, who are moving throughout the country now in large bands, primarily through the forest, and now showing up for the first time in the deep south of the Christian areas,” said Rasche, who has worked extensively with serving persecuted Christians in Iraq as well as Africa. “This is a really concerning thing, that they could move that far south and then show up in force in this town. Owo is not a secluded area.”

Ondo state Governor Arakunrin Oluwarotimi Akeredolu, who visited the scene of the attack and injured persons in hospital, described Sunday’s incident as “a great massacre” that should not be allowed to happen again, according to Reuters.

President Muhammadu Buhari condemned the attack, calling it “heinous.”

But Rasche said in an interview that “nobody believes this is unexpected. The government has been creating a culture of impunity for years now, and the world has seemed to be inclined to go along with it. I imagine that the US State Department will face a lot of questions now regarding their decision to remove Nigeria from the CPC designation, which they did last fall.”

CPC refers to Country of Particular Concern, a designation in the State Department’s annual report on egregious state violators of religious freedom throughout the world. 

Rasche added that the Fulani have developed an animus against the Buhari government. “They’ve made claims that they are marginalized, not taken care of. Assuming it is the Fulani, this is certainly a way of them attempting to show their power, that they can freely move throughout the country and cause violence and harm.”

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