By Peter Ajayi Dada
Catholic News Service
LAGOS, Nigeria (CNS) — Nigeria’s bishops condemned repeated killings of innocent Nigerians by suspected ethnic militias in northeastern Nigeria and said President Muhammadu Buhari should resign if he could not keep the country safe.
Asking, “when will this barbarism end?” the bishops condemned the murder of two priests and their parishioners during the celebration of Mass, at St. Ignatius Catholic Church, Ayer Mbalom, April 24. Attackers also burned about 50 houses, nearly destroying the small community.
It was the latest in a string of violent incidents involving nomadic herdsmen and farmers, violence linked to grazing rights and dwindling fertile land. Benue state, where the incident occurred, has seen nearly 50 such attacks in the last three years.
The bishops issued their statement from Rome, where they were making a regularly scheduled visit to the Vatican, and said they received the news of the ” gruesome, grisly and dastardly murder” with “deep shock, sorrow and utter horror.”
“These innocent souls met their untimely death in the hands of a wicked and inhuman gang of the rampaging and murderous terrorists, who have turned the vast lands of the middle belt and other parts of Nigeria into a massive graveyard,” the bishops said.
They said the unrestrained mayhem had become a metaphor for the untimely deaths that had now become the fate of many of Nigerian citizens.
“That our two priests, Father Joseph Gor and Father Felix Tyolaha, along with their parishioners were waylaid in the course of the celebration of the holy Mass early in the morning suggests very clearly that their murder was carefully planned,” the bishops said. Nineteen people were killed in the attack.
They said recent events showed Nigerians no longer could trust Buhari. They mentioned the repeated calls from them and many other Nigerians, asking the president to take drastic and urgent steps to reverse the violence.
“It is clear to the nation that he has failed in his primary duty of protecting the lives of the Nigerian citizens,” the bishops said.
“Whether this failure is due to his inability to perform or lack of political will, it is time for him to choose the part of honor and consider stepping aside to save the nation from total collapse,” they said.
Often, the violence is characterized as a revenge attack, but the bishops asked, “Whom have these priests attacked?”
They cited a Jan. 3 tweet from Father Gor, in which he referred to the Fulani herdsman, a primarily nomadic group. The bishops quoted: “We are living in fear. The Fulanis are still around here in Mbalom. They refuse to go. They still go grazing around. No weapons to defend ourselves.”
The priests could have fled, the bishops said, but, true to their vocation, they remained to continue to serve their people right unto death.
“We are sad. We are angry. We feel totally exposed and most vulnerable. Faced with these dark clouds of fear and anxiety, our people are daily being told by some to defend themselves,” the bishops said, noting that most people had no weapons to defend themselves.
“How can the federal government stand back while its security agencies deliberately turn a blind eye to the cries and wails of helpless and
(unarmed) citizens who remain sitting ducks in their homes, farms, highway and now, even in their sacred places of worship?”
The bishops recalled that during a Feb. 8 courtesy visit to Buhari, they expressed alarm about security in the nation.
“Since then, the bloodletting and the destruction of homes as well as farmlands have increased in intensity and brutality,” they said. “Now our churches have been desecrated and our people murdered on their altars.”
They said they had consistently advised their people to remain peaceful and law-abiding, but they felt “violated and betrayed in a nation that we have all continued to sacrifice and pray for.”
“We are at a loss as to what excuse again we can continue to give about why things are the way they are in our nation, where a nation’s landscape is littered with the bodies of its own citizens,” they said.
“We are sad and fear that the clock is ticking. The bomb must be defused quickly before it explodes,” they said.
“Nigeria can return to normal times if we put our heads together with sincerity,” they said, offering prayers for the victims and for peace in the country.