The people of Ayar-Mbalom village of Gwer East Local Government Area of Benue State, had gathered at the St Ignatius Catholic church to bury their dead at about 5:00am on April 24, 2018, when gunmen who had been lurking in the bushes, swooped on them.

The gunmen were later identified as herdsmen.

“They first started the attack in a community closer to mine (Ayar-Mbalom) on Monday evening but were repelled by the locals. They were even pursued into the bush.

“They made effort all through the night on some villages within the surroundings and met with stiff resistance,” one of the survivors of the attack known as Samuel, told Daily Trust.

Death in God's house

The 5:30am funeral mass was just about to begin when the gunmen arrived.

Rev. Fathers Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha were supposed to conduct the funeral mass.

According to Samuel, sympathisers, parishioners as well as the priests who were about to conduct mass, had converged on the church, when suddenly the gunmen besieged the premises and opened fire on everyone.

Early reports said the gunmen numbered about 30.

“Some of the attackers used machetes on their victims while the others shot sporadically, killing the priests and many other people. A lot of people were injured and  the death toll might likely rise as some of the injured are in bad shape,” Samuel said, according to Daily Trust.

Director of Communications, Catholic Diocese of Makurdi, Fr. Moses Iorapuu, said that the gunmen burnt down homes, destroyed food items and embarked on a killing spree. Nothing and no one was spared.

Some residents of Ayar-Mbalom who tried to flee the scene were stopped dead in their tracks by a hail of bullets, Samuel says.

Police confirms incident

Benue State Commissioner of Police, Fatai Owoseni, confirmed the incident to newsmen.

Owoseni said that some bandits suspected to be herdsmen attacked the church in Mbalom community of Gwer East and killed two priests, among others.

Owoseni who visited the affected areas, said the attackers came in at 5:00am and disrupted a burial ceremony which the priests were expected to officiate.

He added that 16 dead bodies were recovered. That brings the total number of the dead from the incident to 19, if you add the two killed priests as well as one other corpse which had been brought to Makurdi, the Benue State capital, earlier in the day.

Buhari says attack is satanic

President Muhammadu Buhari who was elected in 2015 on the back of a campaign promise to secure Nigerians better than his predecessors, described the Benue attack as “vile, evil and satanic”.

“I extend my sincere condolences to the govt and people of Benue State, the Mbalom community, and especially the Bishop, priests and members of the St Ignatius' Catholic Church, whose premises was the unfortunate venue of the heinous killings of worshippers and two priests by gunmen”, the president said in a statement.

“This latest assault on innocent persons is particularly despicable. Violating a place of worship, killing priests and worshippers is not only vile, evil and satanic, it is clearly calculated to stoke up religious conflict and plunge our communities into endless bloodletting.

“I want to assure the people of Benue, and all Nigerians, that we will ensure that the assailants are apprehended and brought to justice for this vile and sacrilegious act”, the president added.

Osinbajo says body of Christ must not lose focus

Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, a Christian and Pastor from the nation’s predominantly Christian South, said he was “notified of the violation of a Catholic church in Benue State by armed killers who went in while a burial mass was taking place and they killed a priest and some worshippers.

“It is not only a heinous sacrilege, but high wickedness to kill persons in a place of worship.

“As I discussed these issues with the president and other ministers in the Security Council, it is evident to me and to many, that the devil’s bigger agenda is to stoke up a religious conflict in Nigeria, one that will make it impossible for anyone to preach the gospel or even for Muslims to worship in their mosques.

“A few days ago in Bama, a mosque was bombed and many died. Many such examples abound.

“While the security agencies continue to work relentlessly to haunt down the perpetrators of these evil acts and to bring a permanent end to all of the killings going on in the name of herdsmen, Boko Haram, or in any other name, we as a body of Christ must not lose focus”, the vice president said.

Recurring herdsmen killings

Herdsmen killings across Nigeriahas been a recurring theme since the turn of the year.

A chunk of the nation’s north central States have been affected by the killings often blamed on marauding herdsmen of Fulani extraction.

Benue has been hardest hit. In January, the Samuel Ortom led State buried 73 slain citizens in mass graves, in one day.