Nigeria Church Massacre: At Funeral, Bishop Urges Christians, ‘Refuse to Be Crushed by the Tragedy’
The three-hour Mass was livestreamed on Facebook June 17.
At the funeral Mass for the victims of a terror attack at a Nigeria Catholic church on Pentecost that left dozens dead, the homilist did not shy away from describing the horror of the massacre, but he also urged hope in God's mercy and promise of resurrection.
“We have seen tragedies in Nigeria, and we have seen brutal murders, but few can really compare with the brutality and gruesomeness of the event on that Pentecost Sunday,” Bishop Emmanuel Badejo of the nearby Diocese of Oyo said in his homily.
“In these coffins, a part of Nigeria lies dead, too … because lying down here with these deceased ones are the joys and hopes and aspirations of their families and loved ones, of the Church of God, of the various communities from where they come and, indeed, of Nigeria. Even the ones who are maimed and wounded themselves, wherever they are, represent Nigeria, with all her self-inflicted wounds, bruised, brutalized and violated. So I ask: For how much longer shall this continue?”
The bishop also had strong words for Nigeria's federal government, saying it has failed to demonstrate “any desire to protect the Christian religion.”
The Mydas Event Centre in Owo on June 17 was packed with parishioners and priests, with dozens of simple wooden coffins — Bishop Badejo described the number as being “over 40” — at the front, adorned with flowers. The three-hour funeral Mass was livestreamed on Facebook.
In the June 5 attack, gunmen believed to be Islamic extremists opened fire on Catholic worshipers attending Pentecost Mass at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Owo, Ondo state, in southwestern Nigeria. Initial reports suggested that more than 50 people were killed, including children, and others injured. At least 40 people are confirmed dead, with more than 60 injured people still in the hospital.
The victims spanned in age from a 2- and a 3-year-old all the way 85. A priest present during the attack said he heard three or four explosions in addition to gunfire, with the entire attack lasting 20-25 minutes.
Bishop Badejo, who serves as president of the Pan African Episcopal Committee for Social Communications (CEPACS), preached the homily with the bishop of Ondo, Jude Arogundade, and the bishop of Sokoto, Matthew Kukah, also in attendance for the livestreamed service.
Noting that Ondo is nicknamed “The Sunshine State,” Bishop Badejo darkly remarked, “Indeed, if the sun shone on Ondo state at all on that day, it surely did not penetrate the sordid darkness within the hearts of the murderers who visited St. Francis with guns blazing on that Sunday.”
“The event catapulted the Catholic Church in Owo, the Catholic Diocese of Ondo, and Ondo state of Nigeria into the limelight of world attention, unfortunately for the very wrong reasons. Since then, the entire world has condemned the crime perpetrated against humanity and against God in this state.”
“I could almost hear the victims as they were attacked right inside the church, crying out like Jesus Christ, ‘Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani: My God, My God why have you forsaken me?’ May that desecration of the sanctuary, the desecration of the Body of Christ, and that crime against humanity expressed in their lament not go unpunished,” the bishop said.
Still, while condemning the massacre, Badejo urged hope that the beloved dead are now with God in heaven and that mourning loved ones will see the dead again one day at the resurrection.
“What a pity, and yet what good fortune!” Bishop Bajedo proclaimed, noting that the victims died in a church, under the cross. “For as the Christian religion teaches us to always lay all our troubles and sorrows down at the foot of the cross, we know that they, our dead, are safe in the arms of Jesus.”
“People of God — tragedy and sorrow, small or great, have the capacity to batter and crush us only if we succumb to them,” Bishop Badejo preached.
“So, dear grieving families, friends, the parish of [St. Francis], all gathered here, I appeal to you to refuse to be crushed by the tragedy which we have before us because of your faith in Christ. Today, difficult though it is, let us choose more to give thanks to God that he gave our departed brethren the life, the faith and the privilege of belonging to him and of returning to him even in this incomprehensible manner.”
Despite his words of hope, Badejo forcefully criticized the government of Nigeria, especially President Muhammadu Buhari, for its perceived inaction in the face of killings of Christians in his country. Bishop Badejo mused that it seems to many people that nomadic herdsmen and insurgent groups are more powerful than the federal government at the moment.
“We are not walking corpses merely waiting to be killed. … So we are compelled to ask: Are you still our leaders? Are we at war? Have you abdicated leadership? How many more must die?” he said, addressing the federal authorities. At the same time, he thanked the governor of Ondo state, present at the funeral, and other local officials “for having done all in their power since [the attack] to bring succor to the affected people and to the Church.”
More Christians are killed for their faith in Nigeria than in any other country worldwide — at least 4,650 in 2021 and nearly 900 in the first three months of 2022 alone. Some aid organizations and experts are even assembling evidence that the killing of Christians in Nigeria constitutes genocide.
“Ritual killings, abductions, murders, lynching, kidnappings, armed robbery still increase the bloody tally of innocent deaths and suffering in Nigeria day by day,” Bishop Badejo lamented.
There exists a right to self-defense in the Catholic Church, he noted, stating that life “must be defended in the face of unprovoked aggression and imminent danger.”
Bishop Badejo addressed the perpetrators of the attack, calling them to repent and to give their lives over to Jesus Christ.
“The God of life calls on you to repent. The Church of Christ invites you to a change of heart, to cast away your arms, to repent and embrace peace,” he said, addressing the attackers.
“Why would you be agents of destruction of [the] life in which you yourself share? Why be an instrument of bloodshed in this beautiful country given to all? Why would you abuse and destroy humanity of which you yourselves are part? You may make us cry and mourn, but we shall never stop inviting you to come share in the love and joy of God, who loves you as he loves everyone. Fill your heart with love and cast out hatred,” he urged.
ISWAP, a breakaway faction of Boko Haram, has been identified by government officials as the likely culprit of the Pentecost attack, but Ondo state, where the attack took place, is far from ISWAP's usual area of operations in the north of the country.
The priest who witnessed the attack said the diocese has called on other parishes for support and that the local government as well as nongovernmental organizations, like the Red Cross, and other groups, including Muslim groups and imams, “are coming to our aid practically and financially.” Father Andrew Adeniyi Abayomihe also said that in his view the faith of parishioners is very much alive and strong despite the attack, saying, “From my encounter with parishioners, I have not seen a loss of faith, but a strengthening.”
In an interview with CNA conducted in 2020, Bishop Badejo emphasized the relative harmony among Muslims and Christians in the diocese he shepherds, located in the southwest.
“My diocese is actually one of the centers that I use as an example of good, peaceful coexistence among religions in Nigeria, and has often been noted as well by the Vatican, as an example of what a peaceful coexistence should be like,” Bishop Badejo told CNA in 2020.
He said at the time that although his diocese sees fewer instances of outright violence than some in the north, there exist some means of persecution that are more systemic and subtle, such as government appointments and written laws that seem to favor Islam over Christianity.
“It's no secret that in Nigeria, especially with the [President Muhammadu] Buhari government, there are all written laws that have not favored Christians at all, that have favored, in other words, the Muslims,” Bishop Badejo said, noting that Buhari is himself of Fulani ancestry.
“The Christian Churches have protested, Christian leaders have protested, but the federal government has not said any word in order to show any desire to protect the Christian religion.”