Thousands of Catholics and non-Catholics Tuesday protested against the perennial killings of Nigerians in the North-central zone and other parts of the country by suspected herders of cattle.
The protests, which took place in several states of the federation, was replicated in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) with the celebration of mass at the National Ecumenical Centre, Abuja, where worshippers wore T-shirts with imprints of the two Catholic priests, Rev. Fathers Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha, who were brutally murdered alongside 17 worshippers by herdsmen at the St. Ignatius Catholic parish, Mbalom in Benue State last month.
The protest coincided with the mass burial conducted by the Catholic Church and the Benue State Government for the slain priests and parishioners at the St. Maria Pilgrimage Centre, Ayati Ikpayongo in Benue State.
This was even as the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa'ad Abubakar II, cautioned Christian leaders in the country against making unguarded utterances that could make terrorists win the war against the Nigerian state.
At the mass burial for the slain victims of the herdsmen attack on the Catholic parish, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo assured Nigerians that the federal government would deploy everything in its arsenal to stop the killings in Benue State and other parts of the country.
The vice-president, who conveyed the condolence message of President Muhammadu Buhari, lamented that attacks on places of worship which started a few years ago, had become one too many.
While condemning the senseless killings, the vice-president said the killers only killed the flesh but could never "touch the spirit that belongs to God".
He said the killers gained nothing other than causing grief to the family, friends and the entire country, wondering what they had to gain by causing pain or anguish.
Osinbajo said though the dead had gone, it behoves the government to provide succour and comfort for those that were left behind.
"We can ensure justice for them by apprehending and punishing the assailants. We must rebuild the many places that have been damaged and heal the wounds that have been caused.
"We must rebuild and revamp our security system of law enforcement to ensure that all that live and work in this land are safe; most importantly, we must and will stop these senseless killings.
"Sometimes evil seems to be winning but as night follows day, this evil will be defeated and good will triumph.
"There's none, perhaps all of us, who are not angered and outraged by these killings. The bitterness and anguish of the families of the deceased are palpable. We all see it and we all feel it and it is impossible to look around here today and not be deeply saddened by the faces of so many who have lost their loved ones," he said.
Osinbajo, who was accompanied to the event by the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, condoled with the Catholic Church and prayed that God will build His church in the state, saying that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
In his remarks, the Benue Governor Samuel Ortom said that the state was conducting a mass burial for the third time this year, adding that 492 people had been killed by herdsmen since the beginning of the year.
Ortom, who again expressed shock at the murder of priests and worshipers in the house of God asked: "What was the offence of the priests and the parishioners? Perhaps the church now grows grass to feed their cattle or the parishioners were in the farms.
"What kind of nation are we, which direction are we heading? We should have a nation where there is freedom of worship. The blood of these priests will not go in vain, their death will mark stability of the nation, and we will not stop crying until justice is achieved. We have an unbroken spirit to adhere to the anti-open grazing law."
Officiating at the mass funeral service, John Cardinal Onayeikan, Archbishop of the Abuja Archdiocese, condemned the killings in the state and the country in general in whatever form, noting that the nation now needs a state of emergency.
He accused the government of not doing enough to protect lives of people of the country.
The archbishop, in his homily, said: "The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God. As human beings, we are devastated by the loss of our dear ones.
"For many of us, it will take a long time to get over it. We are devastated by the killings in Benue State and the whole nation, this should not be allowed in our nation.
"One life killed is a life too many because we are created in God's image and likeness. Killing people in a place of worship is an assault on God. If we are not safe in the house of worship, where shall we be safe? Killing a priest of God is an abomination.
"We pray to God to have mercy on our nation and spare his people, Lord else we perish. We remember many others who have fallen victims to the killers.
"God will answer us if we do our part, as heaven helps those who help themselves. Be alert. Let us be one another's keeper. If murderers are allowed to go on the rampage killing peace-loving citizens, there is no way to prevent those seeking self-defence."
Cardinal Onayeikan also stated that the protection of lives and property was the primary responsibility of government, observing that the administration had no excuse for its failure.
"If the present state of affairs is the best that government can give, it should be clear that the best is not good enough, that the need for a radical change for the better is imperative.
"There is already a conspiracy theory making the rounds and ugly rumours of a grand and mischievous plan for territorial conquest, ethnic cleansing and religious imposition. But only concrete and visible steps by the government can change that.
"It is then the government will lay to rest such rumours that are dangerous for the peace of our nation.
"Our nation is in a state of emergency that calls for a grand alliance of all persons of good will for justice and peace.
"Polarisation of lives and differences, especially ethnic and religious, will only play into the hands of the clique of those bent on throwing our nation into chaos, anarchy and doom.
"We can rescue our nation if we are united in truth, justice and determination, if we are united in prayer to God. It is only then that the killing of our brothers and sisters will not be in vain," Cardinal Onayeikan said.
In his remarks, the paramount ruler of the Tiv nation, Professor James Ayatse, rained curses on any member of the Tiv tribe who he alleged were collaborating with the killers of his people.
Avoid Triggering Religious War
In a related development, the Sultan of Sokoto has cautioned Christian leaders in the country against making unguarded utterances that could make terrorists win their war against the Nigerian state.
The sultan spoke against the backdrop of reports credited to some Christian leaders that if Leah Sharibu died in the hands of Boko Haram terrorists, there was going to be a religious war in the country.
Miss Sharibu is the Dapchi schoolgirl, who refused to denounce her Christian faith and remains in captivity. She was kidnapped last February along with over 100 other girls from their secondary school in Dapchi, Yobe State.
But while 105 girls have been released and five others died in captivity, Miss Sharibu was never released by her abductors.
Speaking while addressing residents, the heads of security agencies, religious leaders and journalists at a Ramadan dinner held to break the day's fast at his palace in Sokoto Monday night, Abubakar cautioned Christian leaders against making utterances capable of plunging the country into religious war.
He described such utterances as very unfair, insisting that terrorism has no religion or ethnicity.
The Sultan wondered how Muslims could have connived with the Boko Haram terrorists to abduct schoolgirls.
"Did the Muslims connive with Boko Haram to abduct the girls and release others? No. For them to now make that comment that if she dies at the hands of Boko Haram there will be a religious war is very unfair.
"How could you start attacking Muslims because this innocent girl happened to be a victim of murderous terrorists? It means the insurgents are winning the war because that is what they want.
"If they hear about this and went and killed the innocent girl, that means you are part and parcel of what makes them do that because they want to cause confusion in the country.
"We are all praying for her safe return and for the safety of every Nigerian, irrespective of his or her religion," he said.
The sultan said more Muslims had been killed by Boko Haram than Christians, which even the former President Goodluck Jonathan had acknowledged in the past.
He stressed that he was reacting on behalf of Nigerian Muslims and urged the media to save the country from imminent collapse.
According to him, some of the media reports were inimical to the nation's peace and unity.
He expressed dismay that some media outlets including social media had posted unverified reports and gory pictures to create tension in the country.
Abubakar cited one photograph of herdsmen armed with G4 rifles that was published by some media organisations to portray attacks on innocent Nigerians, saying that it was uncalled for because the picture was that of herders in the Central African Republic, which has been in existence for over 20 years.
"There is no G4 rifle because it has been phased out a long time ago. That picture being used particularly by Channels television was that of herders in the Central African Republic, who were being terrorised by rustlers because cattle rustling started in their country long before coming to Nigeria," said the sultan, a retired military officer.
He threatened to denounce his fellowship of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) in protest over misleading and unverified stories aired or published by their media houses and stressed that the clashes between herdsmen and farmers in the country were purely economic but had been hijacked by some criminal elements.
The sultan said those killing innocent people, especially in the Middle Belt, were criminals who should be arrested and punished.
"You don't arrest or kill innocent Fulani men just like what had happened in Benue State when innocent Fulanis who were in transit were stopped and killed by some residents of the state," he warned.
He expressed concern that the killings may continue because some politicians would want to use it to get an edge over their political opponents.
He also called on Nigerians to be vigilant and endeavour to expose criminals in their midst, even if they are their relatives.
Meanwhile, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) threw its weight behind the Catholic Church and the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria (CSN) over the conduct of the mass burial for the two priests and 17 parishioners killed by herdsmen in Benue State, as well as the nationwide protest that the church embarked upon Tuesday.
The association also called on Buhari to halt his planned second term bid, as it was not in the overall interest of the nation.
CAN president, Reverend Sampson Supo Ayokunle, said this was a trying time for the church in the country and urged all Christians to identify with the Catholic Church in its nationwide peaceful protest against the senseless killings in the country.
Ayokunle expressed dismay that the killing of innocent citizens had become a global embarrassment with mass burials being carried out repeatedly in a country that is not at war.
"Buhari's government should not fold its arms and watch misguided Nigerians, mostly Boko Haram and herdsmen, promote killing as a pastime in the name of politics and ethnicity while solution appears very elusive.
"It is disheartening to note that criminal Fulani herdsmen, bandits, kidnappers and other hoodlums have reduced Nigeria to a Banana Republic.
"This development is unacceptable and we call on all well-meaning people anywhere in the world to join hands in praying for the deliverance, freedom and liberty from this self-inflicted bondage," the CAN president said.
On Buhari's presidential ambition, Ayokunle explained that while CAN was not opposed to the president's right to seek re-election for the second time, "we urge him to halt it in the meantime and attend to the security problems occasioned by the criminal activities of the terrorists, herdsmen and bandits".
"CAN asks President Buhari to suspend his re-election bid until he restores sanity to the country while ensuring the release of Leah Sharibu, the remaining Chibok girls and other abductees from the captivity of the Boko Haram terrorists.
"Buhari's ongoing campaign for re-election without plans to stop the state of anomie in Nigeria is scary.
"CAN prays for comfort to the bereaved, accelerated recovery to those who are recuperating from the wounds and multiple injuries sustained from terror attacks in the past years and few months," he said.
Speaking on the current status of Jerusalem, the CAN president once again congratulated the Israeli government on the relocation of the capital to Jerusalem and on the 70th anniversary of the country.
"Unarguably, the relocation is the special anniversary present from the God of the patriarchs. We appreciate the leadership role of the United States in the landmark historic event.
"We are happy that countries such as the United States of America, Guatemala, Honduras, Romania and Paraguay have relocated their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
"The declaration made by President Donald Trump on December 6, 2017, was a fulfilment of the Biblical prophecy and it is our prayer that other countries including Nigeria will relocate their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
"At a press conference addressed by our late General Secretary, Rev. Musa Asake, on January 16, 2018, we condemned in strong terms the position of President Muhammadu Buhari's government that voted against the position of the U.S. on the historic decision.
"We declared that the Christian Association of Nigeria was compelled once again, to draw the attention of the Buhari administration to the non-aligned status of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in international conflicts.
"We have had cause to express great apprehension when in December 2015, President Buhari, without giving consideration to Section 10 of the Constitution, as well as to the sensitivity of Christians that constitute over 50 per cent of the Nigerian population, led Nigeria to join the Saudi Arabia initiated Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC).
"Since then, there have been other disturbing actions of the president internally, that border on the adoption of Islam as a state religion in a secular state.
"These include the promotion of Sharia-compliant finance, using state resources, violation of the federal character principle in the Constitution by appointing mostly Muslims to head security units in the nation, and the inability of the government to arrest and prosecute rampaging Islamic militias, amongst others.
"Recently, Mr. President once again dragged Nigeria to interfere in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by voting against the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel at the United Nations. The non-aligned status of Nigeria demands that Nigeria should have abstained from voting, either for or against, when the issue came up at the UN.
"The Christian Association of Nigeria is placing on record that the negative vote of Nigeria over Jerusalem was not the consensus of the citizens of this country," he said.