(Aid to the Church in Need) “I have no reason to think that this was an attack against the Church,” said Bishop Hilary Paul Odili Okeke of the diocese of Nnewi in southeast Nigeria. He was speaking on the telephone to the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about the tragic attack on Sunday morning (6 August) in his diocese, inside the church of Saint Philip in Ozubulu.
During the 6 AM Sunday Mass, armed men entered the church, and opened fire on worshipers. “Some people were killed immediately inside the church, while others died in hospital or in the ambulance on the way there,” the bishop told ACN. “So far the death toll is 13, with another 26 people injured.”
According to Bishop Okeke, the attack was linked to local issues and was in no way thought to be a terrorist attack. “I have no reason to believe that Boko Haram or any other terrorist group was behind the attack”, he said. “I don’t think it was an attack against the Church but simply an attack that took place inside a church.”
On Monday the bishop visited the families of the victims and also the wounded in two different hospitals. “I met with every one of them and endeavoured to comfort them. I urged all my faithful to continue to have trust in God. Incidents like this can happen to any one of us and at any time, and all we can do is to leave everything in God’s hands and accept His Will.”
The attack inside the church has undoubtedly caused alarm among the local community. Here in the mainly Christian South of Nigeria attacks of this kind simply do not happen. “There is great concern, but despite this, there were many people who came to the Mass that I celebrated yesterday in the church of Saint Philip.”
Shortly before the Mass began, a telegram of condolence had arrived from Pope Francis. “I was surprised, I wasn’t expecting to receive a message from the Holy Father. I read it out immediately to the congregation, who were extremely moved by the closeness of the Pontiff, which gave them comfort in such a tragic moment.”
Now Bishop Okeke’s main concern is to organise help for the wounded and for the families of the victims, and he is asking the support of all Christians around the world. “But even more than this, we are asking our brothers and sisters in the Faith to pray – for us, for the victims, and even for the attackers themselves. It is the first thing we ask of you – prayer, prayer, prayer.”
In its website, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria confirmed, “According to the investigations to date, the tragedy is due to tribal revenge and not to terrorism, in this diocese of southeast Nigeria, populated mainly by Christians, like all the south of the country.”
Quoting the Vatican missionary agency Fides, the CBCN website said that “the target of the murderers was Aloysius Ikegwuonu, a major drug trafficker who gained enormous sums in South Africa where he controlled an active band in the distribution of cocaine.” The assassins were former accomplices who accused him of stealing most of the proceeds from the sale of drugs.
“Aloysius Ikegwuonu had organized a sort of thank-you ceremony in St. Philip’s Church,” the source added, “but at the last moment, he had been warned that the group of his former accomplices had planned to attack him. He therefore avoided going to church. The group of killers entered the church and, not finding him, killed the father of Aloysius Ikegwuonu and the people around him, thinking that they were members of the family.”