In the wake of an attack that left two priests and 17 worshippers dead, Nigerian clergy are condemning the passivity of government security forces and pleading for more aid in defense against the violent herdsmen responsible for the killings.
Bishop Wilfred Chikpa Anagbe of Makurdi said in a statement that the failure of the government to protect Christians against the attack “cast(s) a shade on the sensibilities of those who have vowed to protect the sovereignty of this country, this dignity of every human life irrespective of any political affiliation and the safety of lives and property.”
The hallmarks of a good government are justice, development and peace, Anagbe continued, but the one who would do nothing “in the face of barbarism has lost a piece of his soul, hopefully not forever. Let the evil man turn from his evil ways and live.”
On April 24, Fulani herdsmen attacked Saint Ignatius Church in Ayar-Mbalom, a town in Nigeria’s Benue State, killing at least 19 people during morning Mass and burning nearby homes and farms .
The herdsmen are responsible for a spate of attacks against Christians and farmers in recent years, as climate issues have pushed herders further south.
In light of the recent attack, Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja said that while the Church urges people not to take the law into their own hands, they also have a right to defend themselves if the government continues to do nothing.
“But when you reach a stage where people become quite convinced in themselves that there is no law, that you are on your own, the first right of every human being is the right to life and with the right to life also comes the right to defend yourselves,” Onaiyekan said, according to Nigerian news source The Sun.
When asked whether priests would also take up arms to defend themselves, the cardinal said: “They have not done so. That is not our way and I don’t think they will. And I am hoping that we have not reached that stage yet. But you could reach that stage. Yesterday, they killed us, the next day, they killed us, the policemen are around and they have done nothing. And the police are given guns and they don’t use them.”
Whether or not priests should be allowed to own and use weapons for self-defense has been debated over the years. In The Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas argues that clerics should not take up arms even in self defense, because by nature of their vocation it would be unfitting for them to shed blood, “and it is more fitting that they should be ready to shed their own blood for Christ, so as to imitate in deed what they portray in their ministry.”
Onaiyekan urged the Nigerian government to work for peace, since peace is “less expensive” and better than war.
“As you know, most of us, at least, are pleading that we live in peace with one another because living in peace is less expensive than going to war. Also, when you go to war, who wins? Whoever is stronger wins, not who is right. The Pope used to say that we must replace the right of force with the force of right. That is where we are now.”
The Fulani herdsman are known for violent attacks against many Nigerians, not only Christians, but Onaiyekan noted that when people are attacked in church, they will perceive the attack as religiously motivated.
“Whether it is religious or not, the people who go to Church and are killed in Church will certainly see it as religious. We came to pray and they came and killed us,” he told The Sun.
The Catholic Laity Council of Nigeria also strongly condemned the religious targeting of the attack in a statement: “The killing of any Nigerian in circumstances such as this is bad enough but the killing of two Reverend Fathers, in one fell swoop, inside a church during Mass, is most sacrilegious, provocative, deliberate assault on the Christian Faith and an open invitation to religious war from which we pray our merciful God to deliver Nigeria.”
The Nigerian Catholic bishops also issued a joint statement following the attack in April, condemning the lack of action by the government and calling for President Muhammadu Buhari to step aside and to stop presiding over “the killing fields and mass graveyard the country has become.”
By mid-January this year, more than 100 deaths had been attributed to the Fulani herdsmen.
In January, the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Nigeria voiced grave concern about the uptick in violence and called on the government to find better alternatives to open grazing.