Nigerian bishop, a former New Yorker, calls church massacre ‘my own Sept. 11th’

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Jude Arogundade was serving as a parish priest in upstate New York on Sept. 11, 2001 when a pair of hijacked airliners brought down the Twin Towers.

Along the Hudson River, a short drive from his parish, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Elmsford, a mile-square village in Westchester County, he could see the dark plume of ash and smoke rising from Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan.

Friends and family back in his native Nigeria flooded him with calls. Was he safe? What was happening? In the days and weeks that followed, priests in the Archdiocese of New York were inundated with grieving families and huge crowds at Masses. Shaken and afraid, people filled the pews and jammed the side aisles. They came seeking consolation, healing, answers, and sometimes a miracle.

In some ways, that experience nearly 21 years ago helped prepare Arogundade, now the bishop of the Diocese of Ondo in southwestern Nigeria, for what he calls his personal 9/11.

coffins laid in the middle of a church

It happened this past June 5. On that Pentecost Sunday morning, a group of armed men attacked a parish in his diocese, St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, in Owo, a city of more than 200,000 people.

The assailants, some of whom sat through the Mass pretending to be worshippers, sprang into action toward the end of the service, detonating explosives and spraying bullets into the congregation.

Some who ran from the church were cut down by gunmen waiting outside. Others trapped inside survived by lying still amid lifeless bodies, pretending to be dead.

At least 40 people were killed, and dozens wounded. A full month later, there is still no precise tally of the dead, partly because relatives came and retrieved their loved ones before the authorities could conduct a thorough accounting.

Arogundade, whose bishop’s residence is a half-hour’s drive from Owo in Akure, walked through the bloodstained church soon after the attack, which he believes was the work of radicalized Muslim Fulani bandits who have committed terror attacks elsewhere in Nigeria.

“The smell of the blood and everything went into my head,” he recalled. “In fact, at this moment, I can perceive the blood.”

What he witnessed inside the church that day, and later at the hospital and morgue, has set his life on a new course, thrusting the former New Yorker and Fordham graduate school alumnus into the international spotlight as an outspoken critic of President Muhammadu Buhari, a retired army officer whose father was a Fulani chieftain.

Arogundade believes the attack to be part of a broader movement to establish an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria, which is roughly one-half Muslim.

As with the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the church killings called for quick action, deep reserves of compassion, and tireless pastoral leadership in the face of an overwhelming human tragedy.

“Immediately, I saw a mission entrusted to me,” Arogundade, 60, told CNA. “My first thought was, ‘I can really do something about this. I can really bring a further awareness to this. I can reach out to many places, and at that point I was ready to talk to anybody what cared to listen to me.”

He recognized that as a naturalized U.S. citizen with years of experience and numerous contacts in the United States, he was well positioned to raise awareness about the genocide he believes is underway in Nigeria, in hopes of enlisting the help of the U.S. government to stop it before it’s too late.

Among the first to offer Arogundade his support was the leader of his former archdiocese, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York.

Afrotimes Newspaper

www.afrotimesnews.com

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