Owo church attack and freedom of religion
Funeral mass for Owo Church attack victims

The victims of Owo St. Francis Catholic church attack were last weekend given a mass burial. At the last count, it was 40 dead and 72 wounded, some of whom had been discharged, according to Gov. Rotimi Akeredolu, in an emotion laden voice during the service. He took responsibility for not stopping the dastardly attack and declared that government failed the victims.

The Owo church shooting again raises the specter of the old issue of religious persecution in Nigeria. Since the arrival of Boko Haram in the North East of Nigeria resulting in attacks on churches and Christians, the controversy had raged whether there is religious persecution in the country.

Although government and Muslim groups continue to deny such situation, the U.S. Commission on Interreligious Affairs, were persuaded by the reports, after invitations to notable Christians from the north, such as Bishop Matthew Kukah and late Dr. Obadiah Mailafia, to so classified Nigeria, which led to limited arms embargo on the country by the U.S.

A report by the U.S-based Christian persecution monitoring group, Open Doors, showed the number of Christians killed in 2020 increased by 60%, mostly because of Islamic violence against Nigerian Christians.

The study said more than 2,200 of 4,761 Christians killed around the world in 2020 died in Nigeria because of radical Islamists. Another U.S.-based organization, International Christian Concern, estimates 50,000 to 70,000 Christians have died in violent attacks in Nigeria over 18 years, mostly carried out by Boko Haram terrorists or arms-wielding gangs.

At least 3,462 Christians, including 10 priests or pastors, were murdered in Nigeria in the first 200 days of 2021.

Breaking it down, the number means that 17 Christians a day were murdered for reasons related to their faith in the first half of 2020, the second highest daily average since 2014, when over 5,000 Christian deaths were recorded in the hands of Boko Haram and jihadist Fulani herdsmen.

In addition to the Christians who were killed in the first 200 days of 2021, some 3,000 Christians, many of them young girls and women, have been kidnapped by Islamic terrorists and their whereabouts remain unknown. At a structural level, close to 300 churches were threatened or attacked and closed or destroyed or burnt since January 2021.

However, following President Biden’s election and strong lobby by the government, the sanction was lifted last year which permitted the sake of the Tucano jet fighters to Nigeria. But the situation and attacks seem to have worsened.

These are sobering statistics and it, perhaps, justifies the claim of religious persecution of Christians in the country; and the Owo massacre is a fitting climax of such assertion. Just this month alone two notable Christian bishops were kidnapped in Umuahia in Abia state, and Jebba, Kwara state, and huge ransoms paid for their release.

Last week, a sinister video appeared on social media where the police claimed they received a letter from herdsmen directing churches to shut down for three months or face more attacks.
To say the least, all these developments are concerning and should not be dismissed nor ignored as innocuous and isolated cases. In the considered view of this newspaper, it appears the lifting of sanction on Nigeria was precipitously hasty as a result of recent events. As a secular country where the right and freedom of worship is enshrined in the constitution, the pervading apprehension over religious attacks is ominously troubling.

Worse still is the prevalent perception of government collusion or favourable disposition to the perpetrators of such heinous crimes that no single arrest had been made and prosecuted. When crimes, especially such high profile ones, are not effectively dealt with, it gives the master minds an air of invincibility and creates a general condition of impunity and helplessness, which further emboldens the criminals to continue to perpetuates the situation.

We must call a spade by its real name, and not a farming implement. The attack on Owo church is a clear evidence that Nigeria has entered in new phase in interreligious relations. Before now, such violent attacks on churches were foreign to the southern part of the country. The Owo attack is an undeniable proof that the church in Nigeria is no longer safe.

Although, this government has shown indifferent attitude to the plight of Christians, we still call on it, even for mere record purposes, to rise up to the challenge and defend the right of Christians. President Buhari swore to protect the constitution, here is an opportunity to do so, because the constitutional rights of Nigerian Christians are being violently abridged and abused.
To allow the situation to continue and degenerate, may force other religions to defend themselves, which can lead to total anarchy.

This must be avoided. If government cannot maintain religious neutrality and balance between the two main religions, a religious war maybe the eventuality, and no nation has ever survived a religious war.

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