“I shielded them as a hen shields her chicks,” Nigerian priest recalls.
Father Andrew Adeniyi Abayomi is the associate pastor at St Francis Xavier Church in Owo, Ondo state, Nigeria, which was hit by a terror attack during Mass on Pentecost Sunday, June 5. The massacre left at least 41 worshipers dead and dozens seriously wounded. Father Abayomi spoke with Aid to the Church in Need about his experience that day, and about the aftermath of the massacre that saw the local Church jump into action to care for the wounded and those mourning the loss of loved ones.
How many attackers were there?
I did not see them, but some eyewitnesses say there were four, while others said that in addition to the four there were some among us in church. Some say six, in total, but the actual number is unknown.
Where were you when the attack happened?
I was still in the sanctuary. I had finished the Mass and was putting incense in the thurible, to prepare for the procession outside the church. That was when I heard a noise. I thought it was a door slamming, or that someone had fallen, or seen a snake, because that has happened before.
But then I heard a second loud noise, and I saw parishioners running in different directions in the church. I stood there in shock, wondering what was going on, when someone ran to me, yelling: “Father, unknown gunmen!”
Did you fear for your life?
At that point I did not fear for my life, rather, I was thinking how to save my parishioners. Some of them summoned the courage to lock the entrance door. I urged people to move through the sanctuary into the sacristy. Some of the parishioners escaped through there. I remained in the inner part of the sacristy. I could not run as I was surrounded by children, while some adults clung to me, some even inside my chasuble. I shielded them just as a hen shields her chicks.
I heard the voices of my parishioners: “Father, please save us; Father, pray!” I encouraged them and calmed them, and said they should not worry, that I was praying, and that God would do something. I heard three or four explosions, one after the other. The whole attack was well planned and lasted about 20-25 minutes.
What happened next?
Finally, we got a message that the attackers had gone. We left the sacristy and I saw that some of the parishioners were dead, while many were injured. I was troubled in my spirit. I pleaded with people to drive our injured brothers and sisters to the hospital. I began moving some of the injured to St. Louis hospital and the Federal Medical Center, with the help of parishioners who were able to drive. We left the dead bodies in church, while trying to save the wounded.
Ondo state has been peaceful, especially compared to northern Nigeria and the Middle Belt, though there have been some tensions between Fulani herdsmen and Christian farmers. How do you explain this sudden outburst of violence?
We have been hearing that militant groups are mobilizing people in the southwest and other parts of the country. We cannot ascertain the tribe, the race, or the group the attackers belong to. Even when the attack was going on, some saw them, but they could not identify them as they didn’t speak. Some of the attackers disguised themselves as regular parishioners during Mass. They worshiped with us during Mass until the attack started.
How will you go about caring for the wounded and grieving parishioners?
We have started doing that already, giving them pastoral care, visiting them, praying with them, administering the Sacrament of the Sick and encouraging them to keep hope alive. We went further to care for their families and the bereaved. The diocese called on other parishes for support. Government as well as non-governmental organizations, like the Red Cross, and other groups, even Muslim groups and imams, are coming to our aid practically and financially. The Red Cross has been the most active, pleading for blood donors and material support.
What are the biggest needs right now?
We need material and financial support to care for the victims and the survivors. We also need our own security strategy. Nearby security personnel and police failed to come to our rescue, even though the attack lasted 20 minutes and four artefacts exploded. We need our own security apparatus.
After an experience like this, will people feel safe returning to church?
Fear has set in the minds of some of the parishioners. Bearing this in mind, we are determined to get them on their feet, to keep them strong in faith, and to comfort them by getting close to each one, not only those who were directly affected. The goal is to establish personal contact with them, strengthening them and reminding them that when we profess our faith in God, it means that we have given up our whole life. This life is just a passage to eternity — and eternity should be our focal point.
Has the attack strengthened or weakened their faith?
From my encounter with parishioners, I have not seen a loss of faith, but a strengthening. They are ready and willing to remain steadfast. I keep praying for them, every day, and Mass is being offered for the intentions of those still in the hospital, to aid their quick recovery. Mass is also being said for the souls of those who died, may they rest in peace. Finally, Masses are being offered for the intentions of all members of the parish, so that they may remain steadfast in faith and alive in hope.
This article was first published by Aid to the Church in Need and is republished here with kind permission. To learn more about ACN’s mission to help the suffering Church, visit www.churchinneed.org(from the U.S.) and www.acninternational.org (outside of the U.S.).