Nigeria, the deputy parish priest: “We continue to be witnesses of unity”

Father Abayomi recounts the moments of fear he experienced on Pentecost Sunday: “The children clung to me, telling me to pray.” He recounts that he went to hospitals to visit the wounded and refers to the number of dead. He reiterates that the government must be involved in guaranteeing “the safety of life and property of citizens.” And he anticipates the Pope’s trip to Africa: “his presence of peace will be the embrace of the universal Church for us.”

Antonella Palermo – Vatican City

It is still not known with certainty who perpetrated the massacre in the church of Saint Francis in Owo, Ondo state (south-western Nigeria), which took place on Sunday, June 5. The hypotheses that are investigated locally shuffle several clues: belonging to Boko Haram, groups of Fulani herdsmen or bandits. Health centers are launching appeals for blood donation. “We ask that all churches and mosques in the region be protected,” reads a statement by MURIC (Muslim Rights Concern), the Islamic association that works for peaceful coexistence between different faiths in Nigeria. It expresses its strong condemnation of an act that it describes as “inhuman, atrocious, horrible and horrendous” and calls for the “immediate arrest and prosecution of the aggressors.”

Andrew Abayomi is the vice-parish priest of the church of San Francisco Javier. He was ordained a priest on January 27. We reached him in Owo, where he witnessed the massacre on Sunday. He recounts that when the faithful realized that there were armed men about to attack, he told the people to run to the sacristy and then escape. “While I was in the sacristy, the children and other people clung to me. So we started accompanying people to the hospitals, before the agencies started the rescue. The children told me ‘pray’. ‘ ‘Yes, God will hear our prayer. Light must triumph over darkness.”

How are they and how is the situation now?

We are in a tragic situation that has also affected us. It’s strange… We learned that it happened elsewhere, but now this massacre has come to us. People are afraid because their security is threatened, their safety is in danger. From a pastoral point of view, we try to make people understand that, unfortunately, it is part of our lives to bear witness to the Gospel in different ways, and this is one of those that we have had to experience. This should not prevent us from continuing to announce the Gospel. We still have to bear witness. Yesterday I went to the hospitals, the bishop and the pastor of the church where the event took place also came, a church I attend. We all went to pray with them, to show our solidarity, to encourage them, to be strong in faith. And some of them took care of their families. However, we could see that they are certain that, yes, God exists and that God has chosen us and called us to be witnesses of his love, so that everyone realizes that we are children of one Father and that, Therefore, humanity needs to be saved together, even though we have been hated for bearing witness to the truth. But the fear will still be there, especially in those who have little faith.

There are also children among the victims…

Yes… that day I was still in church. “Mass is over, go in peace. Thank God. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.” I was preparing to let the worshipers out when the attack began. All of us were still inside. The children, so many wounded, some who lost their lives… There are already 39 confirmed deaths. A number that will still have to be updated. Maybe before the end of this week we can have a definitive number.

Institutions and religious leaders around the world have condemned the brutal attack. The Pope called it “unspeakable violence” and has expressed the wish that peace prevail over hatred. What did he feel when he knew the closeness of the Holy Father?

As I said, I understood that it is part of the Christian testimony. I think we have been called to show the world that, yes, this love prevails over hate. It is something that is already part of our lives. The wicked always opposes the design, the purpose and the will of God. Whatever happens, let us continue to be witnesses of peace, of unity, of harmony, of love. Yes, I know within myself, and I have accepted that this is the path, it is a part of what the Master has given us to follow.

The Nigerian bishops have called for security to be guaranteed in the country, otherwise there is a risk of anarchy. Do you think that’s a likely possibility?

Yes, at least in part. We continue to ask God to be with us, to guide us. It is a commitment of all, but above all the government must commit itself, in particular in guaranteeing security, for the life and property of citizens. We believe that everyone should be able to experience freedom of worship. We have freedom of worship, but we are still not sure, so there is a problem.

It seems that the Fulani herdsmen are the killers. What is your idea?

None of us have been able, so far, to find out his identity. Witnesses were lying on the ground as they fired. I’ll keep digging to see if anyone has heard them. Until now, in the country, we have seen the effects of the disorder caused by those called Fulanis. We do not know. Perhaps there were four who approached the church.

The Pope will soon arrive in Africa to bring a message of peace and reconciliation… What are your expectations?

Yes, it will be a beautiful message. Especially the people of Africa will know that the Church, the universal Church, is with them, together with the Church of Africa, with the Holy Father proclaiming peace and reconciliation, it will be a challenge for political leaders and also for religious leaders and also for people of different faiths. I think your presence will help a lot. We have God on our side and that is why our hope is alive. The Church must also be careful, because there are men who hate the truth. For our part, we must continue to preach, starting from the grassroots, so that people realize that although we are divided by race, culture and color, we have been created by one God. And, therefore, together we are children of the same Father.