“Oh, what sorrow to have watched three of my parishioners shot dead in cold blood, right before my eyes — and I couldn’t do anything,” Nigerian parish priest Father Bako Francis Awesuh, 37, shared in a new Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) report published Friday.
“I couldn’t pray because of the shock I was in. Whenever I opened my mouth to pray, words failed me. All I could say was ‘Lord, have mercy.’”
ACN’s report, titled “Nigeria: A Bleeding Wound,” shares some of the firsthand testimonies of Catholic faithful who have survived torture, kidnappings, and massacres at the hands of Nigerian terrorists.
In May 2021, Awesuh and 10 of his parishioners were kidnapped from St. John Paul II Parish in Nigeria’s Kaduna state by radical Islamic Fulani attackers.
Awesuh was alone in his room at 11 p.m. when he heard gunshots. Terrified, he turned out the lights and waited.
“I stood there confused, not knowing what to do, as I felt completely lost. There was a knock on the door. My legs went cold and my body stiff. I was sweating profusely,” Awesuh said. “They broke down the door and forced themselves inside. One of the men pushed me to the floor, tied me up, and flogged me mercilessly.”
Awesuh and his parishioners were marched barefoot through the wilderness for three days. They were then held captive in harsh conditions for more than a month until a large ransom could be paid.
Eventually, Awesuh and his parishioners were ransomed, but not before three parishioners were shot dead during a rescue attempt.
“I narrowly escaped death,” Awesuh said. Yet, he said, there are many priests there who have not been as fortunate.
“I know of so many priests kidnapped before and after me who were killed even after a ransom was paid,” Awesuh said.
In 2022 alone more than 5,000 Christians were killed in Nigeria, according to religious freedom watchdog Open Doors International.
As a Catholic priest in Nigeria, Awesuh faces some of the highest risks of kidnapping, torture, and murder of any person in the world.
“Kidnappings are a hallmark of terrorist organizations in Nigeria … and clergy are increasingly being targeted,” the new ACN report said.
With over 30 million faithful, Catholics make up a large minority in Nigeria, accounting for approximately 14.82% of the country’s population.
Yet, violent persecution in Nigeria has become a growing concern in recent years, according to many religious freedom organizations, including ACN.
Both priests and lay faithful are regularly targeted by Islamic terror groups such as Boko Haram, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), and militant Fulani.
In June of last year, gunmen believed to be Islamic Fulani extremists opened fire on Catholic worshippers attending Pentecost Mass at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in southwestern Nigeria, killing at least 50.
Maryamu Joseph, 16, shared her story with ACN after only two months since escaping captivity.
She was only 7 years old when Boko Haram attacked her village, called Bazza, taking her captive for nine years.
“Words cannot do justice to what I’ve gone through,” Joseph told ACN. “They murdered without remorse, like it’s a normal thing to do.”
“Right before my eyes, they took one of my siblings and killed him. They cut off his head, then his hands, legs, and stomach … I was devastated. I asked myself, ‘Who’s next?’”
According to Joseph, the Christians of her village faced particularly cruel treatment.
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“They put the Christians in cages, like animals. The first thing they did was forcefully convert us to Islam. They changed my name to Aisha, a Muslim name, and warned us not to pray as Christians or we would be killed,” Joseph said.
Janada Marcus, 22, was forced to flee Boko Haram with her family twice before the terrorists attacked them again in the city of Maiduguri. In this attack, Janada’s father was told to either rape her or be killed.
“With a machete pointed at my father’s forehead, he looked at my mother and at me, but I avoided eye contact because I was ashamed to look him in the face, ashamed of what the men had suggested — it was an abomination!” Marcus told ACN. “My father put his head down in submission to be killed and answered: ‘I cannot sleep with my own flesh and blood, my own daughter, I would rather die than commit this abomination.’”
Her father was beheaded, and Marcus continued to suffer at the hands of the Islamic terrorists.
“They took me to the bush and tortured me severely, emotionally, physically and mentally for six days. I suffered a lot of terrible and wicked experiences — beyond explanation — that made those six days seem like six years,” Marcus said.
By sharing these testimonies, ACN said it seeks to call attention to Nigerian persecution, which has only continued to rise.
“ACN has been highlighting the plight of Christians in Nigeria for many years with growing concern, calling the country one of the most dangerous for Christians in the world,” ACN said in its report. “We call on organizations to work for justice in the country and we encourage people of goodwill, around the world, to pray for peace in Nigeria.”
ACN has not been alone in calling attention to the persecution in Nigeria.
Sean Nelson of Alliance Defending Freedom International told CNA at the beginning of the year that “2022 saw some of the worst violence and persecution against Christians in Nigeria.”
In the face of this rising persecution, Nigeria has by far the highest Mass attendance of any nation in the world. According to recent data compiled by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, 94% of Catholics in Nigeria attend Mass at least weekly.
“The faith of so many in Nigeria, despite this suffering, is among the strongest I know of anywhere,” Nelson said. “It is high time that the U.S. and the international community finally recognize the devastation of the persecution in Nigeria and apply all resources to stop it.”