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Separatists Storm Parish in Nigeria’s Onitsha Archdiocese, Holy Mass “temporarily” Halted

The flag of Nigeria on a military uniform. Bumble Dee/Shutterstock.

Militants alleged to be enforcers of the sit-at-home order by the Indigenous Individuals of Biafra (IPOB), a separatist group in Nigeria, stormed St. Teresa of Calcutta Parish of Onitsha Archdiocese Tuesday, January 18 in an incident that saw Holy Mass that was being celebrated “temporarily” halted.

The January 18 morning incident involved IPOB supporters who, armed with sticks, invaded the Parish church building and told worshipers that they had violated the sit-at-home order by leaving their respective houses on the day IPOB chief, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, was expected to appear in court.

In a January 18 interview with ACI Africa, the Secretary of the Archbishop of Onitsha, Fr. Kevin Onyekachukwu Chukwuka confirmed the incident saying, “The enforcers actually went to the Parish and temporarily suspended Mass.”

The Priest in charge, Fr. Joseph Umeasiegbu, engaged the enforcers in dialogue, explaining why “the Mass should go on; and they left” the church premises, Fr. Chukwuka told ACI Africa about the January 18 incident at St. Teresa of Calcutta Parish of Onitsha Archdiocese.

“This is the first time such a thing happened. I believe that the group that went there didn’t know what the Church stands for,” the Secretary of the Archbishop of Onitsha Archdiocese observed, and added, “I don't see it happening again. Igbo have much of a sense of sacredness.”

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In a January 18 report by Vanguard News, a Parishioner who witnessed the incident says the incident caused confusion around the area.

“We were in the midst of Mass when a gaggle of youngsters suspected of being IPOB members entered the church. They carried sticks and cans and went on to the altar,” the Parishioner whose identity was not provided is quoted as saying.

The worshipper adds in reference to the invaders, “They approached our parish priest, Rev Fr Joseph and asked him why he was celebrating Mass on a day their master was going to court. There were quite a number of them and were visibly angry.”

“Everybody in the church took to their heels. There would have been a stampede because there were a lot of people in the morning Mass today. I ran to a building close to the church,” the worshiper recounts in the January 18 report.

The worshiper says the Parish Priest told the invaders that they were having Holy “Mass today to pray for the release of Nnamdi Kanu. He used diplomacy to talk to them, and even asked them if they were really for Ndi Igbo or Against Ndi Igbo? They now said okay, and if that was so, the people in the church were for them.”

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“They called back everyone to continue the Mass since they were convinced that the church people were Biafrans,” the worshiper is quoted as saying, adding, “Some of us were so afraid that we could not return, so we went home from there. They apologized to the Priest and left.”

Last year, religious leaders in Nigeria called for the release of Mr. Kanu, a pro-Biafra political activist with dual citizenship, Nigerian and British.

Mr. Kanu who founded and leads IPOB was reportedly arrested abroad and repatriated to Nigeria in June last year.

The 54-year-old activist “pleaded not guilty to charges leveled against him by the authorities, including terrorism and treason,” BBC reported October 21.

“We urge President Buhari and the Federal Government to take immediate steps to de-proscribe the IPOB and also release IPOB members being held in various detention facilities in Nigeria,” the religious leaders said in their October 31 statement.

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The faith-based leaders who include Archbishop Anthony Obinna of Owerri Archdiocese and Archbishop Valerian Okeke of Onitsha Archdiocese as representatives of the Catholic Church in Nigeria urged the Buhari-led government to “demilitarize the Southeast Zone.”