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Nun from Nigerian diocese of slain Catholics heartbroken by violence in home town

Sr Anna Abba and Nigeria

Murders: A woman carries a child through a camp in the state of Benue, Nigeria, on April 11. The Catholic Diocese of Makurdi and Sr Anna Abba (inset) condemned the killings of two priests and 17 parishioners of St Ignatius Catholic Church in the state. Photo: CNS. Inset: Sale Diocese.

A NIGERIAN nun who lives “a stone’s throw” from the priests and lay people who were murdered during Mass will tell the community affected by the vicious crime to put an end to retaliation and turn to prayer.

Sr Anna Abba, the superior general of the Sisters of the Nativity, an order of African women serving the poor and marginalised in Nigeria, was in Brisbane when 19 people including two priests, one of whom she knew, were slaughtered near her home in the Makurdi diocese on April 24.

Fathers Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha and 17 parishioners of St Ignatius Catholic Church, in the Ayar-Mbalom community, were killed in the church at the end of morning Mass.

“The priests are just a stone’s throw from where I live,” Sr Abba said.

“I got a terrible shock.

“This is a very young parish, and the people who go to the church are young men and women who start their day with God at Mass. 

“They were just massacred.” 

Sr Abba received the tragic news while in Brisbane visiting Oratory Father Andrew Wise, who studied with Sr Abba at Creighton University 20 years ago.

The night before the killings, she gave a talk for young Catholics associated with the Oratory Father’s youth movement, Frassati.

Sr Abba and Fr Wise worked together between 2007 and 2013 at his former parish, St Agatha’s Catholic Parish, Cranbourne, in Sale diocese, now home to three Sisters of the Nativity.

During a canonical visit to her sisters, Sr Abba told The Catholic Leader violence in her home country was escalating, particularly in Benue state, Nigeria’s “Middle Belt”, where she lived.

The region is where the Muslim north meets the Christian south.

“It hasn’t stopped,” she said.

“Maybe the leaders have their hidden agenda that we’re not aware of.

“We’re not prepared – we are going to wait there until we are all slaughtered.”

She said since the recent murders, many people were rioting in the streets, killing innocent people “in retaliation”.

“The Christians are killing Muslims who are innocent, and that is heartbreaking to me,” Sr Abba said. “The other Muslims who heard about it are slaughtering Christians.

“Retaliation is not good.

“I want to encourage them, and maybe to say it during the funeral, that there’s no need to retaliate, instead we need to trust in God.

“How can we protect ourselves? Improving our prayer life and everyday life.

“We can all be slaughtered tomorrow.

“I will see it as a big honour from God.”

Sr Abba was scheduled to return to Nigeria on April 30 despite emails from locals warning her to stay in Australia where she would be safe.

But she said she was not afraid to return and face death like the 19 killed last week or the 73 slaughtered by herdsman on New Year’s Eve.

“I will be so, so honoured,” Sr Abba said.

“If God gives the gift of martyrdom, it’s a wonderful, wonderful privilege.

“I am not afraid to go back at all.”

Sr Abba is planning to attend the mass burial and funeral for the 19 people murdered, to be held on May 22 “on a hill consecrated to Our Lady”.

“It will be heartbreaking, yes, but I’m glad that when I go back the funeral is on,” she said.

Bishops and diocese condemn the “gruesome” murders

Benue state has had nearly 50 attacks in three years linked to grazing rights and dwindling fertile land.

Makurdi diocese communications director Fr Moses Iorapuu called the killings shocking and barbaric and said one would not think they could occur in the 21st century.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria expressed their shock and sorrow in a statement, which Sr Abba received while in Australia, condemning the “gruesome, grisly and dastardly murder”.

“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 statement said.

The statement, signed by CBCN president Archbishop Augustine Akubeze and secretary Bishop Camillus Umoh, said the killing of Catholics during Mass “suggests very clearly that their murder was carefully planned” and not a revenge attack “for whom have these priests attacked”.

On January 3, slain priest Fr Gor posted on his personal Facebook account: “We are living in fear. The Fulanis are still around here in Mbalom (where they were killed). They refuse to go. They still go grazing around. No weapons to defend ourselves.”

“Their desperate cries for security and help went unheeded by those who should have heard them. They could have fled, but, true to their vocation, they remained to continue to serve their people right unto death,” the bishops’ statement said.

They said the murder left the conference “totally exposed and most vulnerable”, and called on the Federal Government to do more to protect their citizens “who remain sitting ducks in their homes, farms, highways, and now, even in their sacred places of worship”.

Lagos archdiocese social communications director Monsignor Gabriel Osu said the killings were a calculated attempt to instigate hatred and create fear.

He said attackers were emboldened daily by the inability of the government and the law enforcement agencies to stop them.

“The country is gradually drifting to a state of anarchy, where anything goes,” Msgr Osu said.

“Let those in authority beware of a gathering storm.’’

He also said it was unbelievable some people would attack worshippers in a church.

“What manner of insanity and sadism will make some people open fire on priests celebrating Mass in the house of God? What is their offence? Of what use is their death to the perpetrators?” he asked. “This is the height of evil and human callousness that must be condemned in all its entirety by every sane society.”

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