NIGERIA’S bishops have asked every Catholic priest in the country to celebrate a Mass and laity to stage a peaceful protest while 19 people who were killed during Mass are laid to eternal rest.
Sr Anna Abba, the Superior general of the Sisters of the Nativity, told The Catholic Leader that her country’s Bishops requested all dioceses to hold a Mass in their Cathedral during the funeral procession for two priests and 17 lay people on May 22.
Following the Mass, the faithful will stage a peaceful protest asking the government to do more to protect human life in Nigeria.
Sr Abba’s order is based in the Makurdi diocese, the district where the 19 people who were killed lived.
The Nigerian nun was in Brisbane when two priests – Father Joseph Gor and Father Felix Tyolaha – and 17 young parishioners were massacred during Mass at St Ignatius Church, Mbalom, on April 24.
Sr Abba said she knew one of the two young priests killed in the attack, describing the community as a young parish “who start their day with God at Mass”.
She returned to Nigeria in early May “to a fairly calm Makurdi”.
“My first wish was to visit St. Ignatius Church at Mbalom, the place of the massacre of our two priests and 17 parishioners,” Sr Abba said.
“But I was told that it might not be safe.”
The attacks on April 24 have sparked an array of emotions from Catholics in Mbalom, mainly targeted towards the government’s passive attitude towards Muslim radicals.
“Since the incident, the Church in Mbalom village has been totally deserted,” Sr Abba said.
“Many of the displaced people are in Makurdi town, squatting with relations.
“I spoke with some of them. There are myriads of reactions – triumphalism, anger and hurt.”
Fifteen months ago, the Benue State senate passed a bill prohibiting the Muslim Fulani cattle from grazing on Benue soil because the herd was destroying crops that local farmers relied on for their livelihood.
“This was the crux of the anger of the herdsmen,” Sr Abba said.
“They then got sophisticated guns, took their cattle to people’s farms to eat and to destroy.
“They would shoot and kill anyone who opposed them.”
Before Christmas last year, the Fulani herdsmen killed 73 people in Gbajimba village, about an hour’s drive from Makurdi.
“And yet nothing was done by the government of Benue State to give people security,” Sr Abba said.
Months later the herdsmen launched the Mbalom attack, which made headlines worldwide “because it happened while Holy Mass was on and two young priests were among the victims”.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria said in a statement issued on April 26 that the attack, which occurred during the celebration of the Mass, “suggests very clearly that their murder was carefully planned”.
Sr Abba said many Catholics in the region referred to the 19 people killed as Nigerian martyrs.
“Those who pride themselves as very good Catholics rejoice that Nigeria can now boast of having martyrs,” Sr Abba said.
“They say that the blood of these martyrs will cleanse the country of all its filth and there will be lasting peace after.
“On the other hand many are angry that nothing has been done by way of protection of innocent people in the remote villages where these killings are rampant.
“They are angry with the government and with the Church.”
Following the attacks, Sr Abba said many people wished to retaliate against the atrocious violence, targeting anyone who looked like a Fulani herdsman “to slash off their throats”.
She said three innocent people were killed during these riots, forcing the government were to deploy soldiers “to stop further reckless killings”.
“Those who are hurting most are the relations of the victims,” Sr Abba said.
“For instance, Fr Felix’s three other members of the family were also killed.
“The family still weeps.
“They feel quite helpless because they cannot afford to buy arms and they cannot fight with bare hands.
“I think the grieving and the healing for these people will begin after the funeral.”
All of Nigeria’s bishops, which accounts for more than 70 clergy, are expected to attend the funeral in Mbalom on May 22, as well as hundreds of priests, nuns and lay faithful.
The governor of Benue State, Samuel Ortom, is also expected to attend the funeral, which will be held at Holy Mary Pilgrimage Centre at Ayati village.
Sr Abba said the state and the Church were working together to ensure the safety of people who attend the funeral.
She said the Makurdi diocese were making the coffins for the 19 Mbalom martyrs and will offer food for people who will make the trip to Ayati village.
“I hope to be present at the funeral and need to be there three hours before it begins in order to secure a seat for the many hours it will last,” Sr Abba said.
“As is typical in our tradition, many women are going to wail and weep loudly throughout the burial ceremony.”