More than 2,000 people in northern Nigeria risked their lives by turning out for Sunday Mass yesterday (16th March) while their city was being bombed.
Describing St Patrick’s Cathedral, Maiduguri, as “packed”, Father John Bakeni, the celebrant at the Mass, said people told him afterwards that if the attacks worsened they would prefer to die in church than anywhere else.
Sunday’s Mass took place after suspected Boko Haram extremists launched one of their biggest armed campaigns of recent months, firing rocket-propelled grenades and mounting a massive assault on a military barracks.
Hundreds died in the attacks, which were repulsed by the Nigerian military, but there were growing concerns about the government’s capacity to hold back the extremists.
In an interview today (Monday, 17th March) with Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians, Father John Bakeni said: “Yesterday morning there were a lot of bomb explosions but that did not seem to deter people from coming to church.
“It was a very humbling and edifying experience to see so many people at Mass. The place was packed.
“When it came to the homily, I said to them that there was no need to preach. I told them: ‘Your presence in such large numbers is a homily in itself.’ ”
The priest asked Aid to the Church in Need to call on the world to pray for the people of Nigeria: “Please pray that this violence will stop.”
In an earlier message, he described the start of the attacks early on Friday (14th March) stating: “We were greeted with the deafening sounds of bomb explosions, rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire. There was confusion and pandemonium everywhere.”
Further attacks took place against residential areas and a university campus, an assault typical of Boko Haram, which literally means “Western education is forbidden”.
Boko Haram has declared its enemies as the Nigerian government, education institutes and the Church as well as moderate Muslims.
In military clashes that went on for more than four hours, more than 200 insurgents were reported dead following a massive drive by the Nigerian military to flush them out.
But both yesterday and today, Fr Bakeni and others reported that the enemy forces had “regrouped” and were mounting further attacks amid increasing concerns that Maiduguri was on the point of falling to the extremists.
There have been reports of “connivance” between the extremists and certain elements within the Nigerian military, which, it is claimed, explain the latter’s failure to foil the enemy.
Fr Bakeni said: “We are all living in fear now, looking up to God and counting on your prayers.
“The [Nigerian] military are doing their very best but they lack modern weaponry to counter these guys who are far more sophisticated.
“Thank you and all those at Aid to the Church in Need for your prayers and support at this trying moment.
“We really feel the strength of people’s support both within the country and outside.”
The attacks on Maiduguri coincided with violence reportedly carried out by Fulani Muslim herdsmen against Christian villages not far from Kaduna, in northern Nigeria’s Middle Belt.
At least 100 people are reported dead in the attacks on Friday (14th March) evening.
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries.www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS);www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)