Catholics staged a nationwide protest, yesterday, calling on the Federal Government to end indiscriminate killings of innocent citizens.
The protest is the first of its kind by the church in Nigeria and will be seen by observers as a sign of mounting discontent over government's handling of alleged killings by herdsmen and armed bandits.
The action was planned to coincide with the burial of two Catholic priests and 17 parishioners murdered by gunmen on April 24, at the St. Ignatius Quasi Parish, Mbalom, Gwer East Local Government Area (LGA), Benue State.
Earlier, the Cardinal Archbishop of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, in a statement, had rallied faithful, saying, "because of the barbaric killing of human beings in Nigeria, and erosion of the perception of life as sacred, and in union with the Diocese of Makurdi, Benue State, we want to express our deepest displeasure over the ugly happenings in our country and pray for the nation."
The victims were laid to rest at the Sesugh Maria Pilgrimage Centre, Ayati, on the outskirts of Ikpayango, Gwer East LGA, at about 2:45 p.m.
The choice of the site, according to the Bishop of Markurdi Diocese, Most Rev. Wilfred Anagbe, was to honour the deceased as martyrs. "If our places of worship are no longer safe, then where can we run to?" Anagbe asked, expressing hope that the deaths would bring about peace in all parts of the country.
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who was accompanied by top politicians and state officials, expressed the Federal Government's resolve to end similar attacks, vowing the perpetrators of the church killings would be punished.
At the burial, Onaiyekan restated the killings must stop and urged Nigerians to unite and fight the evil trend that has befallen the country.
He warned: "This must not be politicised. The nation is in a state of emergency. We demand synergy. Division, especially on tribal lines, will only throw our nation to anarchy."
The Federal Government must be decisive. For if murderers remain unchecked, citizens would be tempted to defend themselves, he said.
The cardinal, however, cautioned against reprisals, urging Christians to be calm and trust in God.
The Tor Tiv, His Royal Majesty, James Ayatse, also enjoined the people to refrain from reprisals, and commended the Catholic Church for restraining its members.
Although he condemned attacks on communities in the state, Governor Samuel Ortom nevertheless commended moves by the Federal Government to stop the crisis.
He disclosed that attacks by herdsmen have claimed the lives of 492 people since the beginning of the year.
"These people were in the church and not on their farms. By this act, they (killers) have moved their narrative to include other motives," he said.
"We know our killers, but they are not arrested or invited for interrogation. They have stated at several fora that they would reclaim the land," he said, urging the Federal Government to do more to curb the attacks.
Ortom insisted the state's Anti-Open Grazing Law remains the solution to ending clashes between herdsmen and farmers in the country.
Marches were held in Lagos, Ibadan, Umuahia, Jalingo, Abeokuta, Osogbo, Uyo, and Enugu, among others.
Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, Most Rev. Alfred Adewale Martins, urged President Muhammadu Buhari to prioritise the security and welfare of citizens and bring the killers to justice.
He led thousands of adherents to Alausa, Ikeja, to meet with Governor Akinwumi Ambode, and deliver a complaints letter for the President.
The Special Assistant (Civic Engagement) Mr. Adeyemi Onabinjo and Special Adviser (Religious Matters) Rev. Dr. Verralls Kolawole received the marchers on behalf on the governor.
The letter reads in part: "Mr. President, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) in its most recent letter to you (Buhari) posed some very strong questions - 'How can the Federal Government stand back while its security agencies deliberately turn a blind eye to the cries and wails of helpless and defenseless citizens who remain sitting ducks in their homes, farms, highways, and now in their sacred places of worship?'
"Weeks later, we are still waiting for answers to these questions. Left defenseless, ordinary Nigerians get killed while politicians and privileged ones go about with security details.
"Mr. President, justice cries out for all innocent Nigerians who have died in the hands of gun-totting herdsmen. The time has come for you to act fast and put to rest all the insinuations being pandered all over about you."
In the Federal Capital Territory, protesters led by Auxiliary Bishop of Abuja, Most Rev. Anselm Umoren, marched from the National Christian Centre to Area 3 Pro Cathedral, chanting protest songs. They also bore placards with inscriptions that included 'Stop These Killings', 'Enough Is Enough', and 'The Killers Must Be Arrested'.
"Mr. President, we wish to remind you that rampaging squads of terrorist herdsmen who have turned Nigeria into a killing field seem to be above the law, because we are yet to hear of any arrest and prosecution of these murderers who have continued to amuse themselves with the blood of innocent Nigerians," said Umoren.
After the procession, the Director of Communications, Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja, Rev. Fr. Patrick Alumuku, said the church has discovered Christians are now the target of the herdsmen.
"We don't know if government is listening. But we hope that government listens. A government that does not listen ends up where it is heading, because the government is obviously heading in a wrong direction," he added.