It was a bloody Sunday in Anambra State, yesterday, as unidentified gunmen invaded St Philip's Catholic Church, Amakwa Ozubulu in Ekwusigo Local Government Area of the state, killing no fewer than 35 worshippers and injuring scores of others now receiving treatment in different hospitals in the state.
But the state police command said only eight persons were killed, while 10 others sustained various degrees of injuries.
It was learned that trouble started for worshippers who were in church for the 6:00am Mass, when at about 6:45am, the gunmen rode into the church in a Lexus SUV, as one of them entered the church and shot at close range an elderly man, later identified as Pa Ikegwuonu, while others remained in the vehicle outside.
An eye-witness told Vanguard that after killing the old man, the gunman opened fire on other worshippers, as those who tried to flee were cut down by the gunmen outside the church.
Pa Ikegwuonu is the father of Chief Aloysius Ikegwuonu, a businessman from Amakwa, who built and donated the church to Nnewi Diocese, while his wife was shot on her right arm and still on admission at the teaching hospital.
It was gathered that the gunmen were looking for his son, Aloysius, who was said to have returned to the village on Saturday and left later in the day.
According to a source, the gunmen had thought he was in the church and had wanted to deal decisively with him over a yet-to-be ascertained business deal.
How it happened -- Witness
A survivor, Mr. Stephen Ohamadike, told Vanguard at the church premises that the gunmen entered the church around 6.45am as they were about to begin prayer of the faithful.
He said: "Those of us who were to say the prayers of the faithful had just assembled at the altar and I had Number 2 which meant that I was to say the prayer for Nigeria. Suddenly, I saw someone who was putting on a cap shooting indiscriminately inside the church.
"There was pandemonium and in the midst of the confusion, I just lay down on the floor. The officiating priest and the Mass servers quickly left the altar and the Mass came to an abrupt end.
"I counted 11 dead people and many were wounded. I used the vehicle belonging to Pa Ikegwuonu to take him and his wife and others to Evans Hospital where the doctors advised us to go to the teaching hospital. I used the car to convey many other people to the hospital before I came back to Amakwa."
The parish priest, Rev Father Jude Onwuaso, declined comment on the incident, saying the Bishop had directed that only the Diocesan Director of Communications should speak on the matter.
Several other parishioners, who sustained bullet wounds were being treated at the hospital, with over 50 medical doctors from Nnamdi Azikiwe University Teaching Hospital, NAUTH, and other private hospitals around Nnewi battling to save their lives at the Emergency Unit of the hospital.
Governor Willie Obiano, who visited both the church and the teaching hospital, described the incident as very worrisome, adding that preliminary investigations by the Police showed that it was a case between two people from the community who were resident abroad.
He said: "It is tragic that these two people had to bring their quarrel abroad to the village and to the church where innocent people had to be killed and injured. We are not going to relax until those who perpetrated this heinous crime are apprehended. That I can assure you.
"It was so bad that the gunmen went round the church to ascertain that the car belonging to the person they were after was there before they entered the church and started shooting, not knowing that it was his parents that came in the car.
"I don't want churches in this state to become apprehensive because of this incident because it is an isolated case."
The governor commended the doctors for their quick response to save lives, adding that but for their intervention, more lives would have been lost.
He promised that the state government would offset the bills of those being treated and assist in bearing the cost of the funeral of those who lost their lives.
Anambra State Commissioner of Police, Garba Baba Umar, said, yesterday, that the International Police, Interpol, would be fully involved in efforts to trace the gunmen that invaded the Catholic Church at Ozubulu.
The police boss told Vanguard on phone that they were yet to know perpetrators of the massacre but urged members of the public to give Police information in order to round them up. According to him, so far, we have not been able to know the exact number of gunmen that attacked the church.
He said: "It could be one, two or more. They came but did not get their target and they went to the church. We have not declared their target wanted because he is also a victim. He built a church for his people and that was where the killing took place.
"They were after him but ended up in the church. We strongly suspect that the killing is related to a drug cartel. Whatever the problem, they should have sorted themselves out there instead of coming to Anambra to wreak havoc. We will certainly involve Interpol in cracking this case and we have already swung into action."
In a separate statement, the state police command said it would leave no stone unturned in fishing out the gunmen.
The statement read: "Unknown gunmen had today (yesterday) Sunday, August 6, 2017, entered the church, while the Mass was going on and shot at worshipers. Following a distress call, men of the police force rushed there and are currently rescuing the worshippers.
"The hospital authority has confirmed eight persons dead and 18 injured. The command assures Ndi Anambra that the police is on top of the situation and will fish out the perpetrators soon.
"Intelligence report/preliminary investigation proved that it is a fight between the two sons of the community living outside Nigeria that caused the incident because one of them built the church which the incident happened.
"It is sacrilegious but for now it is still premature to disclose the identities. We will brief the public after investigation is concluded."
Buhari condemns attack
President Muhammadu Buhari has condemned the Ozubulu Church attack, describing the incident as "an appalling crime against humanity and unspeakable sacrilege."
Expressing his grief in a strongly worded statement issued by the the Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Malam Garba Shehu, President Buhari said "there was no justification whatsoever to target Church worshippers and kill them in cold blood."
He said this kind of atrocity "plumbs the depth of depravity and extreme cruelty of the kind that words cannot adequately express."
According to the President, there is no religion that does not lay constant emphasis on the sanctity of life, and that "all Nigerians must rise up and speak with one voice against these remorseless evil men."
"Massacre, a national tragedy--South East Governors
Reacting to the incident, Chairman of South East Governors Forum and Governor of Ebonyi State, Chief David Umahi, described the attack as national tragedy.
Governor Umahi in a statement signed by his Chief Press Secretary, Emmanuel Uzor, condoled with the government of Anambra State and entire Catholic faithful of Nnewi Catholic Diocese as well as families of those that lost their loved ones and called for proper investigation to unravel the true cause of the carnage in the church.
"This type of wickedness has further opened a fresh wound in our souls and further pointed to the dynamism of human existence. I on behalf of the good people of Ebonyi State condemn the wanton killings recorded yesterday in a church in Anambra State.
"It shows how wicked our generation is drifting. The killing of the innocent worshippers is condemnable and I call on security agencies to intensify investigation to unravel the true cause of the carnage."
Saraki, Ekweremadu react
In his reaction, Senate President, Bukola Saraki, said the perpetrators of the attack must as a matter of urgency, be brought to justice.
Saraki, in a statement by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Yusuph Olaniyonu, said: "Today, my heart goes out to Nigeria's Christian community, Governor Willy Obiano, the people of Anambra State, and the families of the victims and the survivors of this terrible massacre.
"This brutal act of attacking innocent and unsuspecting worshippers represents the purest kind of evil. Our security forces must not stop until everyone involved in the orchestration and execution of today's massacre in St. Philip's Catholic Church, Anambra State, are brought to book by the strong arm of justice.
"The Senate will continue to offer any form of necessary assistance in this endeavour because today, all of us, as Nigerians, have been attacked by this senseless act committed by evil people."
On his part, Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, in a statement by his Special Adviser, Media, Uche Anichukwu, described the day as a black Sunday, not only for Anambra State, but also the entire nation, and called on security agencies to fish out the killers and bring them to justice.
Ekweremadu said: "I received with a deep grief the news of the blood-curdling killing at St. Philip's Catholic Church, Ozubulu today. It is indeed a black Sunday and the act is most sacrilegious and condemnable.
"My heartfelt condolences go to the Government and good people of Anambra, especially the bereaved families and the Church. I also pray God to grant the deceased a peaceful repose and the wounded a quick recovery.
"However, this dastardly act brings to the fore, once again, the need to re-engineer our security system, especially our policing system to arrest the rising wave of violent crimes in the country."
Have we lost our humanity? Dogara asks
Similarly, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, expressed shock over the attack, describing the incident as abominable, barbaric, inhuman, and the height of wickedness.
In a statement issued by his Special Adviser on Media & Public Affairs, Mr. Turaki Hassan, the speaker said his heart was broken by the sad news of the massacre of innocent worshippers in cold blood by people he described as " sons of perdition whose souls will rot in hell."
He said: "Have we lost our humanity? Where is the place of sanctity of life and sacredness of worship places in our society? What offence did the worshippers commit to warrant their massacre in cold blood by wicked souls and heartless men?"
Dogara lamented that increasing insecurity was reducing Nigeria to a state of nature, saying life was becoming cheap.
The speaker reiterated his "call for the overhaul of Nigeria's policing architecture that will lead to reform of the Police Force, equip them with modern and sophisticated gadgets so as to discharge their duties of protecting lives and property effectively, and ensure social order in the society."
Secretary, Imo State chapter of Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Nze Raymond Emeana, described the incident as "barbaric, inexplicable and sheer wickedness of the highest order".
He wondered why anybody or group of persons should visit such level of terror on innocent worshippers.
Obi consoles families, others
In his reaction, former governor of Anambra State, Mr. Peter Obi, expressed shock and unbelief at what he called "mindless barbarism", stressing that such barbarism was alien to Igbo people and should be condemned by all men of good will.
Obi in a statement, condoled the immediate families of the deceased, the Ozubulu community, the Catholic Church and the entire state, describing the act as the "highest exemplification of barbarism."
He noted that Igbo people were known for respect for the sacredness of human life and advised them not to allow the culture of violence and mindless killing triumph among them.
We must fish out the perpetrators - Sen. Uba
Senator Andy Uba reacting, condemned the shooting and killing of the worshippers.
In a statement issued by his media aide, Joseph Itazi, Sen. Uba, who visited the scene of the incident said that people of Anambra were not known for such violence.
Uba, called on the Commissioner of Police and the state governor to ensure that the perpetrators of such dastardly act were brought to book.
"Such acts cannot be tolerated in Anambra. For worshippers to be slaughtered during mass is something that we must not allow in this state.
I call on the state governor and the commissioner of police to immediately swing into action to root out those who killed these innocent worshippers."
My heart goes out to the families of the diseased.
Although it is a sad event, we must take solace that having been martyred in the church, the deceased would have gone to a better place.
Speaking with the victims at the hospital, Senator Andy Uba expressed deep shock and added that this kind of heartless evil must not be allowed to fester in Anambra State.
Catholic Church reacts
The Catholic Diocese of Nnewi, Anambra, has described Sunday's attack on worshippers at St. Philip's Catholic Church, Ozubulu, by a gunman as regrettable.
The church, in a statement signed by Rev. Hygi Aghaulor, Director of Communications of the Diocese, and available to newsmen, said the Parish Priest, Rev Fr. Jude Onwuaso escaped unhurt.
He described the act as a sign of loss of what is sacred and consoled the families of victims of the attack.
"It is regrettable that our people are more and more losing a sense of what is sacred.
"What on earth would make people open fire on innocent unarmed worshippers including children and women on a Sunday morning?
"We condemn this ungodly act in its totality; we pray Almighty God to console the families affected and assure them that our hearts are with them as we pray for the quick recovery of the wounded.
"For the entire parishioners, we call on them not to be discouraged in their usual practice of faith.
"It is when the forces of darkness attempt to overshadow goodness that the light of God shines even brighter than ever just as it happened on Easter Sunday.
Church Killings, Barbaric -APC
In the same vein, the All Progressives Congress, APC, condemned the attack, describing it as barbaric.
APC in a statement signed by its spokesman, Bolaji Abdullahi, commiserated with the Catholic Church in Nigeria as well as the government and people of Anambra State.
"The APC condemns the barbarism displayed by the callous attackers who gunned down defenceless people while they worshiped.
"The party calls on security agencies to ensure that the perpetrators of this heinous crime are promptly apprehended and brought to justice," it said.
The Party also called "on security agents in Anambra as well as other parts of the country to provide adequate security in places of worship to forestall a repeat of this unfortunate incident."
CAN condemns killings, calls for urgent investigations
Reacting, President of Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, his eminence, Rev Samson Olasupo Ayokunle, described the attack as unwarranted, senseless, and wicked.
He said: "What are these silly gunmen here and there turning our nation to be? Whatever may be the reason or reasons for this dastardly act cannot justify this criminal, jungle justice. Without doubt, the act is a madness all of us must condemn in strong terms.
"I urge the Federal Government, through the Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, in particular, to address the issue of proliferation of arms and ammunitions so as to make our world safer.
"The perpetrators of this ungodly act must be brought to book without delay. I call on the Police to fish out those responsible and there must be no cover up. Enough of these killings in the country."
Huriwa Condemns Ozubulu Massacre; Calls For State Police:
A pro-democracy and Non- Governmental organisation--Human Rights Writers Association Of Nigeria (Huriwa) has condemned the early Morning massacre of worshippers in Anambra.
In a statement by the National Coordinator, Comrade Emmanuel Onwubiko, and the National Media Affairs Director, Miss Zainab Yusuf, the group said it was absolutely unacceptable that humongous budgetary releases were made towards maintaining armed security forces but "when the occasion calls for the operatives to exercise their lawful obligations, they are not only found wanting but also scampering for lazy excuses."