April 29, 2018

Benue church massacre: “Hostile herdsmen are here… and we have nothing to defend ourselves”

Benue church massacre: “Hostile herdsmen are here… and we have nothing to defend ourselves”

– Slain Catholic priest in a Feb Facebook post

•He didn’t officially report that parish was in danger —Chancellor, Makurdi Diocese
•Mass burial for victims on May 22

By Peter Duru, Makurdi

Rev. Fr. Ortese Jude Ortese, CSSP, is the Chancellor, Catholic Diocese, Makurdi. In this interview, Ortese speaks on last Tuesday’s killing of two priests and worshippers at St. Ignatius Catholic Church, Ukpor-Mbalom Quasi-Parish in Gwer East local government area of Benue State. According to him, one of the slain priests wrote a message on his Facebook page about three months ago as if he saw death coming.

•Rev. Fr. Ortese Jude Ortese

How did the Catholic community in Benue State receive the news of the killing of two of your priests and 17 worshippers?

Tuesday, April 24, 2018 is a day the Catholic Diocese of Makurdi and indeed the entire Tivland will never forget in a hurry. That day, we were thrown into mourning because the sanctuary of the Lord was desecrated with the blood of the chief celebrant at mass. It was the day assailants surrounded the Catholic Church with the intention of killing those that came to worship and actually went ahead to murder them in cold blood at morning mass. It was a black day; people are still in shock about what happened that day because it was an abomination beyond description.

We are talking about a crisis that has been here with us for some time but has taken a dimension that is bizarre. We are no longer safe in our houses because people are surrounded at night, they are waylaid and killed. People sleep in their houses at 3am, they are attacked and killed. That is what happened on January 1, 2018. And now, even the church is no longer a safe place. The church that is supposed to be a place people are supposed to run to for refuge; in the presence of God, they are murdered in cold blood. And any attack on a part of the Catholic Church is an attack on the entire Catholic Church worldwide because the Catholic Church is one.

Are you not curious that the assailants were aware that there was a mass going on in the church at the time of attack?

The attack was surprising; we never expected the attacks that had been happening to get to the level of attacking people in the church. One of the priests killed, Fr. Joseph Gor, wrote on the social media in early February that he was afraid, that there were Fulani herdsmen all over the place. That they had refused to leave, that they were very hostile. And that worshipers had nothing to defend themselves. That is what the young man wrote on his wall, for him to just meet what was waiting ahead of him. It is really very unfortunate that this had to happen.

Like he posted in the social media, did he or the church at any time receive information or intelligence report that this attack was going to happen?

No. We never received any intelligence that suggested that this attack was going to happen. This had been happening, as I said, around vulnerable areas close to the River Benue; from Katsina-Ala down to Makurdi, Gwer West and Agatu; these are the riverine areas that are vulnerable. But on the other side, we never anticipated that attack. We know that there is violence in the land and all these things had been happening and we knew that they could attack from anywhere but we never anticipated that they could attack that place and the church. We had no prior information. We never anticipated this.

Was there any report to the police after he wrote in the social media about the threat the herdsmen posed?

This was a comment in the social media. He didn’t formally write to us to say ‘we need security’. It was a casual expression, chatting with a friend and then he updated his comment on Facebook and wrote that. So it was not a formal report that he sent to us. It was just a casual statement he made in the social media. And nobody took this thing seriously. People say all kind of things. It was only after this event happened that people began to talk about the social media comment.

What is the position of the Church on the security situation in the country? Is the Federal Government doing enough in the area of security?

No. The Church has never hidden her voice in the condemnation of what is happening. Since this crisis took this turn, people have written several reports. According to a submission by Chief Daniel Ayua Abomtse, Ter Nagi, these killings began as far back as 1986, but others have also said that what we have now actually took this dimension in the year 2000. Yet others say 2010. But the fact is that this thing is something that didn’t actually start today.

It has been there for some time and we have always made it very clear that what is happening is not right. It’s that sometimes when you talk, people take a lot of things for granted. We have always made our position known on this issue. When the issue became very hot in January, Catholic Bishops met here in Makurdi and condemned the killings. They made it clear that nobody should claim that cows are more important than human lives. And they said the Federal Government should live up to its responsibility of protecting lives and property.

After that, the Bishops of the northern region met and issued a similar communique. These are instances where the Church has made bold to tell government that what is happening is not right. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria under the leadership of His Grace, Most Reverend Ignatius Kaigama, also spoke in a letter addressed to the President and told him there is bloodletting in the country and that this has created a lot of tension and it is not good. That the Federal Government should do something. But the Federal Government has failed us.

So should President Muhammadu Buhari come to seek for votes for second term, will the Church support him?

Well, the Church does not support somebody based on where the person comes from or the person’s religion. The Church does advise people to use their conscience to vote for people that are good for leadership. The Church will not come out to say ‘this is the person you will vote for to become the President, this is the person you vote to become governor’. But we encourage people to exercise their civic responsibility and, when it is time to vote, they should vote for the right persons so that if they make mistake, they will blame themselves for the mistake; but if they make the right choice, the country will be good for it.

How are you going about the burial of the Tuesday attack victims? Will it be a mass burial?

Yes, we intend to have a mass burial. We had a meeting of the highest decision-making organ of the Diocese in the absence of the Bishop and decided that we will have the burial on May 22. The venue of the burial needs some work because we intend to have them buried together, the priests and the lay faithful who were killed, as a testimony of eternal communion.

They were sharing in the communion when they were killed. So we want to see them in the same communion around the table in heaven. We have set up a committee for the burial and we believe that the state government should step in because these people who were killed were citizens of Benue, and the situation in which they were killed warrants that the state government should have something to do concerning the burial.

We just received a call from a priest at Mbalom that there were sounds of gunshots again there. How you react to that?

Yes, they are rumours all over the place. Yesterday they said the road from Abuja to Makurdi was blocked, that there was no access; that Fulani herdsmen were tracking vehicles and bringing people out to slaughter them. So, you hear all kinds of stories but not all of them are true. There’s a lot of panic. The baseline is that people are living in fear. And that is what we have always said that government has the responsibility of calming people’s nerves. It has come to a point that when we enter our rooms at night we cannot even sleep. We stay awake because you don’t know what will happen next.

Who were those the deceased priests have contact with last and what was their discussion?

Yes, Iorlaha was just about finishing mass when he was killed. Father Joseph Gor had been sent to Ondo for agricultural training. He just came home on break. He had a funeral mass that morning. Instead of leaving a day before, he said ‘I will stay behind and attend this burial and after the burial I will return to Ondo’. And the other person was there with him to say the morning mass before both of them were shot dead.