Nigeria: Latest abduction/killing points to growing target of Catholics

By 'Tofe Ayeni
Posted on Wednesday, 20 July 2022 20:54, updated on Friday, 22 July 2022 12:29

A priest speaks to the congregation during a memorial service for victims killed during an attack by gunmen during a Sunday mass service at St. Francis Catholic Church, in Owo, Ondo Nigeria June 17, 2022. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

Just before 6pm on Friday 15 July, Fathers John Mark Cheitnum and Donatus Cleophas were abducted while attending a parish function at Christ the King Catholic Church, Yadin Garu, in Kaduna. Four days later Cheitnum was found murdered. Their kidnapping adds to the growing list of Catholics being targeted in Nigeria.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for these abductions, which are becoming more commonplace. Around a dozen priests have been kidnapped this year across the country by gunmen who demand ransom payments, with at least seven occurring this month.

The UK-based human rights foundation, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, has described Nigeria’s Kaduna state as “an epicentre of kidnapping and violence by non-state actors.”

Furthermore, a 2022 report by the US Commission for International Religious Freedoms sites six attacks against churches in Kaduna in 2021.

Nigerian security forces have failed to prevent these attacks. The Kafanchan diocese said in a statement that Father Cheitnum was “brutally killed on the same day of his abduction.” The burial will take place on Thursday 21 July.

Church statement

Just for ransom?

Popular rhetoric says that the high rate of unemployment in the country pushes citizens into a life of crime, including kidnapping for ransom. Kidnappers do not usually harm their victims, so long as they are paid.

However, increasingly – as was the case with Father Cheitnum – victims do not come back alive or are subject to inhumane acts, raising the question of what has changed.

The Owo church massacre

Last month, at least 50 churchgoers were killed and dozens more injured when gunmen attacked a Sunday mass in Ondo State, in what has now become known as the ‘Owo church massacre’.

Governor of the state, Arakunrin Oluwarotimi Akeredolu described the act as “vile and satanic”, while Reverend Augustine Ikwu, a secretary of the Catholic Church in Ondo, said it “left the community devastated.” The Islamic State, West Africa Province (ISWAP) has been blamed for this attack, although no arrests have been made.

Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, said they had “been able to locate the perpetrators of that horrendous attack. From all indications, we are zeroing in on ISWAP.”

An attack on Catholics?

It is unclear why Catholics are being targeted more than other Christian denominations. Of the 70 million Christians in Nigeria, some 19 million are Catholic and 18 million Anglican, but there are also a diverse group of Protestant churches with significant numbers.

For a Catholic priest in Lagos, who asked to remain anonymous, the Catholic Church is not sure if the denomination is being specifically targeted: “But we know it is our Church that was attacked and … people were killed and many injured – some deadly injuries, some minor.”

Another Lagos-based Catholic priest, who also requested anonymity, agreed, saying: “I think it is difficult to state categorically that this attack was intended particularly for the Catholic Church.” However, he believes that an attack in a Catholic Church is an attack on all Christians.

Of the Owo church massacre, a statement issued by the Vatican press office on behalf of Pope Francis said: “The pope has learned of the attack on the church in Ondo, Nigeria and the deaths of dozens of worshippers … while the details are being clarified, Pope Francis prays for the victims and the country…”

Many believe the Vatican should lend its voice more to the plight of targeted Christians in Nigeria. However, Muslims in Nigeria, particularly in the north, have not been exempt from terrorist attacks.

“The recent attacks are direct attacks on churches … We have not heard in recent times of attacks on mosques or imams. With the facts gathered, the recent attacks are heinous crimes against Christians,” says our first Catholic priest.

Our second one agrees: “I think certain attacks are particularly directed to the Church, with a number of priests abducted and some killed or scarred for life [although] There are other random attacks and targetted attacks at individuals or government facilities…”

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