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Church attack rattles area of Nigeria where religious violence is rare

A police officer stands guard on June 6 inside St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Owo, Nigeria, a day after an attack against worshipers there. (Sunday Alamba/AP)
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DAKAR, Senegal — The first shots rang out as Mass was drawing to a close at the small church in the Nigerian town of Owo.

“The bomb exploded, and we were surrounded everywhere — they surrounded the church,” said 50-year-old Shalom, who was among the worshipers at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church on Sunday when it was stormed by gunmen who opened fire on the panicked crowd and detonated explosives. She declined to give her last name for fear of reprisals.

“I managed to escape, and I didn’t see their faces. It was horrible,” she added, saying she lost count of the dead as she rushed to safety.

Dozens were feared killed and scores injured in the attack in the southwestern state of Ondo, where religious violence is rare. Graphic videos from the scene show bloodied bodies on the floor, including women and children.

Local media put the death toll as high as 50, but police have yet to confirm the figure or release full details of the attack. No group has asserted responsibility.

Gunmen attacked a Catholic church in southwest Nigeria during Mass on June 5, killing at least 50 people including women and children. (Video: Reuters)

Most violence in Nigeria has taken place in the northeast, where Boko Haram has waged 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. Violence in the southwest, by contrast, has mainly been marked by kidnappings for ransom and conflict between farmers and herders from the Yoruba ethnic group.

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

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

“All the priests in the parish are safe and none was kidnapped,” Ikwu said in a statement quoted by Vatican News. “The Bishop of the diocese is also with them at this trying time.”

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

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari vowed to tackle the security crisis when he was elected in 2015 but has struggled to put an end to the violence. “No matter what, this country shall never give in to evil and wicked people, and darkness will never overcome light,” he said Monday. “Nigeria will eventually win.”

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

“Whoever orchestrated this wanted to send a religious message,” he said. While he doubted Boko Haram was responsible, he said it was worrying that other groups may be trying to use the same tactics to terrorize the country’s Christian community. “In saying this is not Boko Haram, we can’t say this does not have a religious connotation.”

Wroughton reported from Cape Town, South Africa.