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OUR FEARS, RESOLVE — Catholic priests whose colleagues were murdered in Benue

Two weeks after the brutal murder of two of their colleagues by suspected Fulani herdsmen, Catholic priests in Benue State have expressed shock over the development they described as horrific. 

Some of the priests, who spoke with The Nation, said that while the ugly development engendered fear, it was incapable of making them to abandon their vocation as priests. 

One of them, Rev. Fr. Amos Mbachie, said that all the priests in the state were saddened by the incident. He said: “We are not happy because of this development. It has been paining us right from the beginning, 2012 to be specific, when these things started. But it is biting us more now that it is hitting the church directly.

It is all the more painful because it was an unprovoked attack.” The murdered priests, according to Fr. Mbachie, “were saying their normal mass in an environment that was ordinarily not tense, but they came directly for them. So, we are very sad and very distressed. It is a challenging time for the church.” 

Explaining his relationship with his deceased colleagues, he said: “I hail from the denary where the incident occurred. Culturally, I belong to this section of Tiv land where the thing took place. I had a direct contact with the two priests because for a long time, I have been the bishop’s secretary. One of them is from my own community. It is a personal thing to me. 

“There was no premonition of this attack. They were busy living their normal life when they were killed. It was an act of terrorism that was directly targeted at the church, because when they came, the other priest was saying Mass and they killed him.

“The other one was saying funeral Mass few meters from the parish and they went and killed him alongside some parishioners. It was a direct attack, to the extent that they started burning houses within the community.” 

Asked if he and his colleagues would have the courage to continue with their work in the state, Fr. Mbachie responded: “We cannot be scared from doing our work. We know that this is aimed at frustrating us. It is aimed at trying to intimidate us, but we can never be cowed. We can never give in to fear, because we believe that we have a right to do what we are doing in a country that is free, a country that allows freedom of worship, a country that has responsibility to look after us and protect us. 

“We cannot begin to run away from our duty. Yes, there is fear. As human beings, there is fear—the feeling that this thing can come to you. But we are not ready to abandon our calling because of this development. He hinted that the priests were waiting for instructions from Catholic bishops to know the next line of action. 

“But we have our own way of crying out. Talking to you is one of the ways. We believe it is the duty of the government to protect us. We have been saying this long ago. 

“Everything is about security. If there was security in that community, may be the Fulani herdsmen would have been afraid to attack the area. In the whole community, there is no police station.”

Speaking on the mood of the Catholic faithful in the diocese, he said: “There is anger, frustration, and pain running through the minds of the people, because they feel the government cannot protect them. If we didn’t stop the people, by now, a lot of damage would have been done. We are still begging people to calm down up till now. 

“The day the incident happened, the angry members of the church wanted to break the mortuary and remove the priests’ bodies to demonstrate, but we calmed them down because we felt we should not add more confusion to what had happened.” 

He added: “Even as I speak with you, the people are not protected. Many of our parishes are closed down. The priests themselves are refugees. The late Fr. Felix was a refugee. He left his duty post after the Fulani herdsmen sacked that community. The bishop asked him to assist in another community but they went and killed him there.

“That is why we are of the opinion that this is being done in collusion with the security agencies. We are completely dissatisfied with the way the government is going about the whole thing. People around the area know them. 

“Why can’t the government use the same force they used against Boko Haram to deal with these people? If security people are not able to do what they are supposed to do, I must tell you that they are complicit in these killings. One can accuse them directly.” 

Rev Fr. Murphy Michael, an Ireland missionary who said he has spent 57 years in Nigeria, regretted that the problem which started as a feud between farmers and herdsmen has assumed a religious dimension. 

He said: “It was a shock to hear about the murder of our priests. I never believed that such thing could happen in Nigeria. Things have reached a new level. Before, the problem was about grazing but now, it has become a religious issue. It has never happened before that people will go inside a church and kill the priests and the worshippers. 

“It is a very serious problem. The tension is very high and many people are afraid to live in their place which they call homes and there is a movement of people.

That is a problem because of feeding and helping them to survive.” 

In spite of the daunting challenge they are faced with, the Vicar General of the Makurdi Diocese said: “As priests, we are not deterred. Whether we are killed or not, our work will still continue. The attendance in church last Sunday was very good. 

“I didn’t know the late priests very well, because one was ordained four years ago and the other one year ago, and they were both working on the outskirts. I didn’t have a close relationship with them.” 

Recalling the time he newly arrived in the country, Fr. Murphy said: “I have been in Nigeria for the past 57 years, and it is amazing how we have a situation like this. When I came here in 1961, you could walk all over Nigeria day and night and you were safe. 

“We have no fears because we are in the hands of God. But if your life is in danger, you have to fight back if you are able to do that. But you cannot fight back with a machete against the gun. That is the problem. 

“These herdsmen are heavily armed while the people themselves have no defence. All they have is machetes or sticks. The Federal Government should do everything they can to protect our people.” 

The amiable priest said his people back home were concerned about his safety in the volatile area. But he said that, that was not enough reason for him to abandon his flock in the troubled Makurdi Diocese. 

“This is part of missionary life,” he said. “I have no plan to travel back home because of this. I have no fear about that. I am here to do my work because that is what God is asking me to do.” 

A former Rector of Spiritual Year Programme, Rev.Fr. Emmanuel Egbiase, in an emotion laden voice, told our correspondent that “when you lose a beloved one, one way or the other, it affects you. There is no doubt about that. But because we are men of faith, we know from church history and our belief that the blood of the martyr is the foundation of the church. We take consolation in the fact that they would be duly rewarded by God. 

“So, we see them as heroes of our faith. We do not see them as people who had been unfortunate. We see them as people who have been fortunate to share in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ because He shed His blood for the word of God.

These same colleagues of ours who died recently have also offered their lives. Moreover, they died in active service.” 

He added: “We give glory to God. We do not feel let down. We do not feel disappointed. We are not even so angry that they died. We thank God that they had the opportunity to die worthy martyrs’ death.” 

Further bemoaning the attack, Fr Agbiase said: “It is not always a good thing in a country where we have freedom of worship, so to say, that people of other faith would rise up against others to terminate their lives. It will definitely affect the faith of the lay people because their faith may not be as strong as that of the priests. 

“It is not good for the church that people would lose their lives in such unfortunate circumstance.” 

To stop subsequent attacks on the church and the people, Fr Agbiase advocated self-defence, saying: “We must rise up to defend ourselves. Self-defence is a natural right that God has given to man. Even the Catholic catechism encourages us to defend ourselves. 

“Self-defence is not against Christian way of life. It is God given right to every human and not just Christians. Self-defence does not mean that we should pick up arms and search for our adversaries and hunt them down. But we must give ourselves protection, and if it is necessary, to use firearms and other weapons to defend ourselves. I think the time is now.” 

Also toeing the path of his colleagues, he said: “I would not for any reason leave my job as a priest or leave the diocese. I will never go anywhere because my life is threatened.

I will stand there and defend myself, and if I die, I die for the faith.” He added: “The people are quite angry, but they are highly spirited. They understand the teachings of the church. There may be hidden fears but they should also know that a Christian should be able to offer his life for the sake of others. 

“I don’t think they will be rattled to the extent that they would not go to church. Even in their various homes, are they safe?” 

He lamented that the government has done the church and the people a great disservice, adding: “I am in one accord with the Catholic bishops in the communiqué they released recently. It is the government’s duty to protect lives and property, and they have failed in that direction. 

“They must rise up to their duty to save lives and property, because that was the primary oath they swore to.” 

The Director of Catholic Education Service in the diocese, Rev. Fr. Godwin Udaa, feared that the unfortunate attack could lead to religious war, adding: “It is really sad that priests can be killed. It is sad that they have gone to the level of killing people in the church. My concern is that this crisis should not turn to a religious war. 

“The entire thing has happened and we pray that the Almighty God will put a stop to it. We also pray that the Federal Government will realise that one of the cardinal points of any government is protection of lives and property.

He further said: “On your question about if we are living in fear, who doesn’t love his life? We know we are all going to die, but it should not be through brutal way. The most surprising thing is that up till this moment, the government has not been able to give a name to the people who are killing everybody in the country, especially here in Benue State. 

“Let us try and give it a name now. If they are an offshoot of ISIS, let us know. If they are an offshoot of Boko Haram, we should know. It is very difficult to fight a group that doesn’t even have a name. Let the Federal Government, the state government and other stakeholders try and tag this people. If not, we shall continue to live in fear.”  

He advised: “The governments, both at the federal and state levels, should wake up to their responsibilities. What are they doing with the security vote that they are getting when people are being slaughtered like goats? 

“That security vote should be stopped, because how can they continue to collect millions of naira without safeguarding the lives of the people? The purpose of giving them the money is defeated.” 

The killing of his colleagues, according to him, “cannot make me to quit the priesthood or the diocese. People die not because they are priests. What about those who were not priests but had been killed? It is not a question of leaving the priesthood. That is far from it. 

“What is happening now is that if you will be killed, you will be killed. You can be travelling on the road and they would attack and kill you..."