Dozens feared dead after deadly terrorist attack on church in south-west Nigeria

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DAKAR, Senegal – The first shots were fired as mass ended in the small church in the Nigerian town of Owo.

“The bomb went off and we were surrounded everywhere — they surrounded the church,” said Shalom, 50, who was among worshipers at St Francis Xavier Catholic Church on Sunday when it was stormed by gunmen who opened fire panicked crowd and detonated explosives. She did not want to give her last name for fear of reprisals.

“I managed to escape and didn’t see their faces. It was horrible,” she added, saying she lost the death count while scrambling to safety.

Dozens were killed and dozens wounded in the attack in southwestern Ondo state, where religious violence is rare. Illustrative videos from the scene show bloodied bodies on the ground, including women and children.

Local media put the death toll at up to 50, but police have yet to confirm the number or release full details of the attack. Neither group has claimed responsibility.

Most of the violence in Nigeria takes place in the north-east, where Boko Haram has been waging an Islamist insurgency for more than a decade, regularly attacking churches and kidnapping schoolchildren. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the region and millions displaced. In contrast, violence in the southwest was dominated by kidnappings for ransom and conflicts between farmers and pastoralists of the Yoruba ethnic group.

Security was visibly tighter across Ondo state Monday, witnesses told the Washington Post. “All hands are on deck to prevent a similar attack in any part of the state,” an Ondo police spokesman said in a statement.

Rev. Augustine Ikwu, communications director for Ondo Diocese, denied reports that the attackers kidnapped a priest and members of the congregation and said Nigerian security forces had been deployed to Owo.

“All the priests in the community are safe and none have been kidnapped,” Ikwu said in a statement quoted by Vatican News. “The bishop of the diocese is also with them at this difficult time.”

The Vatican said Pope Francis is “praying for the victims and the country, which is grieved at a time of celebration.” Sunday was the Christian holiday of Pentecost.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari promised to address the security crisis when he was elected in 2015 but has made efforts to end the violence. “No matter what happens, this country will never give in to evil and evil people, and the darkness will never overcome the light,” he said Monday. “Nigeria will eventually win.”

Though the attack was the first of its kind in Ondo state, it fits into a larger pattern of communal violence across Nigeria, according to Ebenezer Obadare, a senior fellow in African studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

“Whoever orchestrated this wanted to send a religious message,” he said. While he doubted that Boko Haram was responsible, he said it was worrying that other groups might try to use the same tactics to terrorize the country’s Christian community. “When we say this isn’t Boko Haram, we can’t say it doesn’t have a religious connotation.”

Wroughton reported from Cape Town, South Africa.

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