Catholic youths digging graves ahead of burial
By Peter Duru, Makurdi
“The Catholic Diocese of Makurdi, and indeed the entire Tivland, will never forget April 24, 2018. That was the day we were thrown into mourning after the sanctuary of the Lord was desecrated with the spilling of the blood of the chief celebrant at mass. It was indeed a black day.”
These were the words of Rev. Fr. Ortese Jude Ortese, the Chancellor, Catholic Diocese of Makurdi, Benue State while speaking on the gruesome murder of two priests and worshippers at St. Ignatius Catholic Church, Ukpor-Mbalom Quasi-Parish in Gwer East local government area of Benue State by suspected herdsmen.
The attack drew the ire of the Catholic faithful across the globe with many describing it as jihad against the Church
The Catholic Church set the tone of reactions to the murder through a statement by Fr. Moses Iorapuu, Director of Communications, Catholic Diocese of Makurdi.
“Rev. Fathers Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha have been confirmed dead in the deadly attack by herdsmen/jihadists early today on Mbalom village and St. Ignatius Quasi Parish Ukpor-Mbalom”, the statement said.
“In their classic style, they burnt down homes, destroyed food items and killed at will.
“The police seem to know nothing of the attacks which have been going on in other villages within Benue State since the Anti-Open Grazing Law came into effect last year.
“Many people are asking why the International community has remained silent over the massacre of Benue citizens.
“The answer is simple: It has been the goal of the jihadists to conquer Benue and Tiv people who resisted their advance into the Middle Belt and the eastern part of Nigeria since 1804, the people who rejected Islam and fought for the unification of Nigeria in the civil war of 1967 – 1970.
“The people of Eastern Nigeria therefore have little sympathy for Benue people who fought on the side of Nigeria. The Muslim North is enjoying a sweet revenge overshadowed by an insensitive regime.
“There were over 170.000 internally displaced persons before the Naka invasion and surely, with the current situation in Mbalom, Benue will be flooded with thousands more.
“What cannot be said at this point is the consequence of the death of missionaries in the silent killings that have been ignored by government.
“The Catholic Diocese of Makurdi, which is one of the largest Dioceses in Nigeria, has been active in providing relief materials including education and skills acquisition lessons.
“To go for the priests means total destruction of everything we stand for and believe in, as a people.”
Narrating the attack on the church, Mr. Jonathan Alum, a former leader, Gwer Legislative Council representing Mbalom Council Ward and a parishioner, said he jumped out of bed around 6am on April 24 when sound of gunshots rented the air in the village.
“The sound of the gunshots was heavy. Initially I ran back into the house and hid but when the gunshots seemed to be moving close to me, I summoned courage and gathered my little children on my motorcycle and sped off”, he said.
“As we tried to escape, just by a rail crossing close to my house, I saw a group of well-armed men. As soon as they saw me, they shot like three times at us but, miraculously, none of the bullets got to us and we managed to escape.
“I was lucky they couldn’t get me because I was descending into a valley while the assailants were ascending a hill. So, that gave us some form of covering and I and my children fled to safety.
“I lost two of my relatives in the attack. Three other men, who were running to escape through the same route I took, were not so lucky as they were hacked down by the invaders who were mostly dressed in military fatigue.
“One of the herdsmen that I saw across the rail was masked while the two others left their faces open but I couldn’t recognize them. Based on what I saw, those attackers who left their faces uncovered were Fulani but I don’t know if the one who covered his face was also Fulani.
“The slain priests were people the community looked up to, to give direction to their spiritual lives. The loss was indeed a devastating blow to everyone in the community.”
Church Chairman killed
On her part, Mrs. Evelyn Chia, who was still mourning and almost speechless, said she lost her husband, who was the Church Chairman, in the attack.
According to widow and mother of six, who is in her mid-40s and now resides in Aliade, the Gwer local government area headquarters, her husband had left the house that day for the 6am mass while she went out to fetch water from a nearby stream to prepare breakfast for the family.
“I was still at the stream when I heard sporadic gunshots in the village. I quickly hid in the bush. After the gunshot sounds subsided, I came out from hiding and was running towards the church which was a short distance from the stream.
“On the way, I first saw the corpse of the Catechist but I kept running towards the church praying that my husband would be safe. Alas, as I got to the main door of the church, I found my husband dead in the pool of his blood.”
She disclosed that her husband was also the Head Teacher of LGEA Primary School Ayar-Mbalom.
Dramatic killings inside church
The wife of the Catechist, Mrs Roseline Ivor, who was in the church when the killer squad came, escaped being shot, but her husband was not so lucky; he was murdered in cold blood.
“My husband normally went to church before us. That day, he left the house at about 5am and I joined him later and the mass started by 6am”, she narrated.
“Because the church is an open hall, we didn’t know when the armed men surrounded the church and some walked straight to the altar.
“At that point, Fr. Gor was preparing to leave the church with my husband to attend a burial in the community while Fr. Felix Tyolaha was to continue with the mass.
“The first person they shot was Fr. Gor who was leaving the church. They shot him at close range just by the entrance door of the church. They also shot my husband.
“One of the attackers went straight to the altar and shot Fr. Felix but he didn’t die on the spot. He crawled from the altar where he was shot towards the market square apparently looking for help before he died.
“They didn’t stop there. They went for anyone they caught up with in the church, and the nearby market square.
“After seeing that my husband had been shot, in the middle of the confusion, I ran and grabbed him, shouting for help that was not forthcoming.
“People were running, screaming and wailing but no one had the courage to stand up to the killers. It was like what we see in movies. My husband died in my hands because help was not forthcoming. I looked to the heaven; I wept for help that could not come.
“After attacking the church and killing the priests, my husband and other parishioners, they went to where a burial ceremony was to be conducted that morning by the slain priests and church members, and also killed several other persons they met.
“It was indeed a sad episode that we shall all live with for the rest of our lives.”
Theophilus Tsokar, a cousin of the slain Fr. Felix Tyolaha, told Sunday Vanguard, “Fr. Tyolaha was the last child in my mother’s family. He was indeed like the first child of my mother because my mother brought him up and he lived with us from childhood.
“He was a gentle man who dedicated his life to prayers. He cared about all. He graduated from BSU before becoming a priest.
“His death was a big blow to us because we still cannot believe it. My mum is yet to come to terms with his death because he was, like I said, the first son of my mother.
“He does not deserve that kind of death. He served God diligently and gave his all to the service of God.
“He was a man who took up spiritual battles as a priest and he gave it all he could as a man of God.
“He was barely 10 years when my mother took him and brought him up. He was like my elder brother. We are devastated by his death. That is why mother, who he called mother, is so traumatized and can hardly speak on the matter.
“If you know the kind of life he lived you will agree with me that he didn’t deserve that kind of death. I can swear with my life that he was a true man of God who died a virgin.”
“My mother saw him through school, he attended Remo Divisional High School before he came to Benue State University and then into priesthood.
“His death is still a shock to everyone of us, but we know one thing, vengeance is of God and we have asked God to take over the matter and give justice to his servant who gave his life, spirit and soul to work in his vineyard.”
On her part, 60-year-old mother of Fr. Joseph Gor, Mama Nancy Gor, said the death of her son had dealt a devastating blow to the family.
Speaking through her daughter, Jessica, Mama Gor lamented that the news of the death of her son left her hospitalized for several days in the hospital.
The widow said, “He was my first child and the breadwinner of the family. Things have not been easy for us since his death. He used to visit the family house regularly. I still expect to see him because I cannot believe that Fr. Joseph is dead.
“He would have been 40 years on July 31 and about that period he would have marked five years as a priest.
“I learnt that before he was killed, sometime in January he had through the social media complained and expressed fear about the presence of armed herdsmen at Mbalom.
“As if he knew what was ahead, he was eventually killed by same herdsmen. I look up to God for justice because I know that the God my son served until death will give us justice.”
Mama Nancy, who appreciated the Catholic Church for their show of love since the murder of her son, prayed God to strengthen the church in her trying moment.
‘Height of murderous activities’
Speaking on the murder of the priests and parishioners, Rev. Fr. Ortese Jude Ortese, the Chancellor, Catholic Diocese of Makurdi, lamented that the attack on the church was the height of the murderous activities of herdsmen in Benue.
“The Catholic Diocese of Makurdi, and indeed every man and woman of goodwill, was actually very sad about the incident. It was a black day and, since then, people have been in shock because it was an abomination beyond description”, Ortese said.
“The church that is supposed to be a place people are supposed to run to and take refuge, in the presence of God, they are murdered in cold blood. So, it is actually a disaster.
“And an attack on a part of the Catholic Church is an attack on the entire Catholic Church worldwide, because the Catholic Church is one; we are one all over the world.
“So, this is a direct attack not just on the priests who were killed but on the Catholic Church all over the world, all Christians all over the world and indeed all men and women of goodwill all over the world”.
Why mass burial?
On the burial, he said, “We intend having a mass burial, we had a meeting of the highest decision making body of the Diocese and decided that we will have the burial on May 22, 2018.
“The date is fixed because the venue of the burial needs some work and 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 communion when they were killed. So we also want to see them in the same communion around the table in heaven. The burial will take place at the Pilgrimage Centre of the Diocese at Sesugh Maria, Ayati”.
Quoting the Catholic Bishop of Makurdi, Most Rev. Wilfred Anagbe, Ortese said the burial would begin by 10am and followed by Internment.
In the meantime, tribal leaders in Benue State, through their Chairman, Chief Edward Ujege, condemned the killings in the church as a desecration of the temple of God.
The tribal leaders also condemned the alleged call by the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, for a review of the grazing law of Benue State to accommodate all parties, warning that the call could further embolden the marauders to unleash more killings.
“By implication, General Buratai’s position is that even terrorists like ISIS, Boko Haram as well as other categories of militants should be given a sense of belonging in our country and Benue State in particular after we have been chased out of our communities”, they said.
Also reacting to endless killings in the state, the Executive Director of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE-Nigeria), Mr. Sylvester Uhaa, in a statement, condemned the carnage, describing it as barbaric and unacceptable in the 21 century.
The statement read in part, “CURE-Nigeria will continue to condemn the carnage and bloodshed that has engulfed our land, particularly in Benue, Taraba, Zamfara and Nasarawa states”.
Meanwhile, preparations were in top gear for the burial of the priests and other victims of the April 24 attack at the weekend.
When Sunday Vanguard visited the Sesugh Maria Pilgrimage Centre, Ayati, along Makurdi – Otukpo Road, members of the Catholic Youths Organisation of Nigeria, Benue State Chapter were seen digging graves.
Governor Samuel Ortom also few days ago also directed the Bureau for Rural Development to commence the electrification of the host community ahead of the burial ceremony even as the Catholic Church has put all machinery in motion to ensure that the victims were accorded a befitting burial on Tuesday.