Catholics in a northern Nigerian city are risking their lives to attend Sunday Mass, as their community has fallen prey to violence from radical extremists.
“There were a lot of bomb explosions, but that did not seem to deter people from coming to church,” said Fr. John Bakeni, the celebrant of a March 14 Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Maiduguri.
“It was a very humbling and edifying experience to see so many people at Mass. The place was packed,” he told Aid to the Church in Need in a March 18 interview.
Fr. Bakeni said more than 2,000 people packed the cathedral, saying to him later that “if the attacks would worsen they would rather die in church than anywhere else.”
The Mass was held during violent attacks on the city, allegedly by radical Islamist group Boko Haram, which included rocket-propelled grenades and attacks on the city's military barracks. Houses were set on fire, and innocent people were killed, locals have reported.
Boko Haram, which means “Western education is sinful," has declared its animosity for Christianity and the Church, educational institutions, the Nigerian government, and moderate Muslims.
During the attacks on the city, which have taken place over the course of months, hundreds of people have died. In the days preceding the March 16 Mass, the Nigerian military had undertaken a campaign to push back the extremists, killing more than 200 members of Boko Haram.
Fr. Bakeni said that despite these attempts, Boko Haram had regrouped and were undertaking more attacks.
The “military are doing their very best, but they lack modern weaponry to counter these guys who are far more sophisticated.”
Boko Haram’s attacks have killed thousands since 2009; according to the BBC, they have killed 500 in 2014 alone. The U.N. estimates that the attacks have led to more than 470,000 internally displaced persons in Nigeria.
During the Mass, Fr. Bakeni said, he told the congregation "that there was no need to preach. I told them: ‘Your presence in such large numbers is a homily in itself.’"
“Please pray that this violence will stop.”