(CP) Just weeks after an attack on a Catholic church in southwestern Nigeria on Pentecost Sunday left dozens dead and injured many more, the diocese's bishop is urging the international community to speak out against the killing of Christians in his country.
Bishop Jude Arogundade of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ondo spoke with The Christian Post on the sidelines of the International Religious Freedom Summit held in Washington, D.C., late last month. He discussed the June 5 bomb-and-gun attack at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Owo. Around 40 people were killed, with some reports suggesting up to 80 were injured.
Arogundade hopes his presence at the annual conference "put out there for the whole world to see" what happened to his diocese and what is taking place in other parts of Nigeria.
He said that on Pentecost Sunday, "some terrorists came to St. Francis Church and opened fire on worshipers." The massacre "left the entire community broken" and the "entire diocese shattered," the bishop said.
In the weeks that followed, Arogundade said the diocese has tried to determine why anyone would "attack us for no reason" and also provided support to injured people and families who've lost loved ones.
He said one woman had two legs amputated because of injuries she sustained in the bomb blast and will need "long-term care."
Arogundade also spoke of children who "lost their father some years back" whose mother died in the attack, leaving them orphaned.
"We've done everything to raise money here and there, to provide them the education they need," the bishop added.
The diocese is also working to prepare the churches with cameras to prevent future "episodes."
"[We're] trying to educate our people on security matters in our diocese," he stated.
According to Arogundade, the southwestern portion of Nigeria where the diocese is located "is really a stable part of Nigeria" and has "never had this kind of incident before."
"We're so shocked and surprised that anyone would come from far away ... to attack us," Arogundade told CP.
He praised the response of the Ondo state government, noting that "the governor has been very, very gracious and very, very supportive."
However, he claims the federal government's response to the attack is "lousy" and similar to its response to the frequent attacks against Christians in other parts of Nigeria. Arogundade claims the federal government led by President Muhammadu Buhari has elected to "just look away, playing dumb."
In recent years, thousands have been killed by violence in the country's Middle Belt states as radicalized Fulani herders have been known to carry out attacks against predominantly Christian farming communities. In the country's northeast, Islamic extremist groups like Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province have killed thousands and displaced millions.
Human rights advocates have argued for years that violence against Christians in Nigeria has reached the standard for "genocide." However, the Nigerian government maintains that religion is not a factor and has written off the violence in the Middle Belt states as decades-old farmer-herder clashes.
Arogundade characterizes the attacks against Christians in Nigeria as "ethnoreligious." He believes that what's happened in Nigeria "has gotten to that level of genocide."
He called for an "outcry from all decent people of the world so that the perpetrators can be brought to justice."
Arogundade criticized the U.S. State Department's removal of Nigeria from its list of countries of particular concern for tolerating or engaging in egregious violations of religious freedom last November. Nigeria was added to the list in 2020 by the Trump State Department after years of outcry from Nigerian Christians and rights activists.
In removing Nigeria as a CPC, the State Department ignored the recommendation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent panel tasked by Congress to advise the federal government on religious freedom matters.
"Whoever did it must have acted out of ignorance, lack of understanding of what is going on," Arogundade said. "Every day, there are attacks here and there all over Nigeria, except for the southwest that has been very stable for some years now."
The religious leader called on U.S. leaders to disclose why Nigeria was removed from the list of CPCs and "make [a] pronouncement to stop the killing."
"That would be a kind of general understanding that America is complicit in whatever is going on to protect lives and properties of innocent Nigerian Christians" whose "only crime is that they believe in God" and "believe in Jesus Christ," Arogundade said.
"I just want the whole world to see and to hear and to know our story. We need to ask a question from the leadership of Nigeria why they are not protecting us, why they are not taking proactive actions to protect law-abiding citizens of the nation."
In releasing its annual international religious freedom report last month, the U.S. State Department acknowledged that "pervasive violence involving predominantly Muslim herders and mostly Christian, but also Muslim, farmers, particularly in the North Central, but also in the North West (where most farmers were Muslim) and South West regions."
Data from the Nigeria security tracker maintained by the Council on Foreign Relations suggests that an estimated 10,399 deaths occurred from conflict in 2021. The council estimated that 1,112 deaths "resulted from violence among ethnic groups, herdsmen, and farmers, some of which had implications for religion and religious freedom, according to multiple observers or, in the words of the council, 'sometimes acquires religious overtones.'"
While predominantly Muslim Fulani radicals are often blamed for attacks on farming communities, the State Department maintained that attacks were also perpetrated by "armed criminal groups of various ethnicities."
Secretary of State Antony Blinken "raised religious freedom issues with government officials in a visit in November, as did embassy and consulate general officials throughout the year," according to the State Department annual report.
Arogundade pleaded for stronger action from the international community.
"There are so many questions to be asked, and I see that in asking those questions, the world will be able to compel the leadership of Nigeria to give answers to those questions," he believes.
He rejected the idea that much of the violence unfolding in Nigeria results from conflicts between farmers and herders.
"I am very careful to say it's not a conflict between farmers and herders. No, it is an attack from the herders," he insisted.
"Farmers have never attacked anybody. It is the herder that goes around with the herd to devastate people's farms and destroy the livelihood of the people. [The] government has allowed this for too long to continue to happen."
The bishop reiterated his belief that herders "attacking the locals and taking over their properties and their farms" constitutes a form of "ethnic cleansing." He concluded that "they also attack churches in order to impose their Islamic religion."