“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 in his diocese, inside the church of Saint Philip in Ozubulu.
During the 6 a.m. Sunday Mass, armed men entered the church, and opened fire on worshippers. “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.”