A massacre that killed 50 worshippers at a Catholic church in Nigeria is “a direct attack on all Catholics everywhere,” said a chaplain to Philadelphia’s Nigerian Catholic community.

During a June 5 Pentecost Sunday Mass, gunmen opened fire and detonated explosives at St. Francis Catholic Church in Owo, located in Nigeria’s southwestern Ondo state. At least 50 were killed, with an unspecified number wounded and children among the casualties, according to numerous international media reports.

At present, no group has claimed responsibility for the killings, but there are several possibilities, said Father Celestine Madubuko, chaplain of the archdiocesan Nigerian (Igbo) Catholic community, named for Nigerian priest and sainthood candidate Blessed Iwene Tansi.

“Nigeria is battling with an Islamist insurgency in the northeast, and armed gangs who carry out attacks and kidnappings for ransom, mostly in the northwest,” said Father Madubuko, who is in residence at St. Martin of Tours Parish in Northeast Philadelphia.

Among the most prominent terrorist organizations operating in Nigeria are Boko Haram (the name of which means “Westernization is sacrilege” in the Hausa language) and ISWAP (Islamic State’s West African Province), an offshoot of the former.

Over the past two decades, the groups have been responsible for assassinations as well as large-scale attacks. Boko Haram drew global attention and condemnation for its 2014 kidnapping of more than 275 girls from a boarding school in Chibok. While just under 150 have since been freed, almost 175 remained missing as of January, according to the United Nations. The agency said Nigeria’s children remain at risk for abductions, torture, forced marriages, recruitment into armed groups and killings.

In February 2021, Nigeria’s Catholic bishops warned surging violence indicated their nation was “on the brink of a looming collapse” due to “serious insecurity” and a “palpable failure of government.”

Missionary Sister of the Holy Rosary Florence Enechukwu, archdiocesan coordinator for pastoral care of African Catholics, seen here in this undated photo, said violence against Christians in Nigeria is an everyday occurrence. (Sarah Webb)

With the Pentecost Sunday massacre, “the carnage (now) spreads to other areas,” and “no one is left out of this danger,” said Father Madubuko.

The latest attack shows extremists “have penetrated every part of the country,” said Sister Florence Enechukwu, who oversees the archdiocesan African Catholic Apostolate, part of the Office for Pastoral Care for Migrants and Refugees (PCMR).

With Ondo state considered to be relatively peaceful, “just the fact that this could happen in the west (of Nigeria) blows my mind,” said Sister Florence, a Missionary Sister of the Holy Rosary.

Father Madubuko agreed, saying that while in recent months authorities suggested the violence would spread, “Ondo state was never one of the areas of concern,” since “such attacks are rare in southern Nigeria.”

At the same time, said Sister Florence, violence targeting Christians “is not new” in Nigeria, while Father Madubuko described conditions for Catholics as “dangerous” in many regions of Nigeria.

“Faithful, including seminarians and priests, are being maimed, tortured, kidnapped, raped, butchered, and (their) properties destroyed,” he said.

“Almost daily there is an occurrence; you hear something,” said Sister Florence. “And it doesn’t make the news. The victims are Christians.”

Last month, Deborah Samuel, a young adult student at Shehu Shagari College of Education in Nigeria’s northwest, was stoned to death and burned by several Muslim classmates who accused her of blasphemy against Islam.

Chronic violence and fear “of what comes next … might keep Catholics home, away from the church,” said Father Madubuko.

Both he and Sister Florence called on faithful to advocate for fellow believers in Nigeria – especially with violence expected to increase in the run-up to the country’s 2023 general elections.

“If people can raise their voices, write to the Nigerian government and the Nigerian embassy here – any way they can reach out to condemn what is happening,” said Sister Florence. “Call (on) the government to take action, and to protect innocent people. … And pray for Nigeria’s security.”

“Catholics all over the world need to support (Nigeria) more,” said Father Madubuko. “An attack on one Catholic is an attack on all Catholics.”