Rev. Fr. Ortese Jude Ortese is the Chancellor, Catholic Diocese of Makurdi, Benue State. In this interview with Newsmen, he spoke on the recent killings by armed Fulani herdsmen amid the failure of the Federal Government to protect lives and property. Excerpts…
How did the Catholic community receive the news of the killing of two Catholic priests and 17 worshippers?
That day, April 24, 2018, is a date that the Catholic Diocese of Makurdi and indeed the entirety of Tivland will never forget in a hurry. It was the day we were thrown into mourning, the date which the sanctuary of the Lord was desecrated with the blood of the chief celebrant at mass.
INTWSlain Rev. Fr. Gor
It was the day the dimension of insurgency went to the level whereby they surrounded the Catholic Church for the intention of killing those that came for worship and actually went ahead and murdered them in cold blood at the early hours of that day while they were at morning mass.
The Catholic Diocese of Makurdi and indeed every man and woman of goodwill was actually very sad about the incident. It was a black day and ever since, people are still in shock of what happened that day because it was actually an abomination beyond the description of human words.
We are talking about the situation of crisis that had been here with us for sometime but the level and the dimension this has gone is actually bizarre. We are no longer safe in our houses because people are surrounded at night, they are waylaid and killed. People are sleeping in their houses and in the wake of the morning, by 3am or 4 o’clock they are attacked and killed. That was what happened on the first of January, 2018.
On the other side, some people on the road are also ambushed, vehicles are stopped on the road, vehicles are ambushed and people are killed. Others are killed in their farms, they go to their farms and they are killed. People are afraid of going to the farm because they are killed in their farms. And now, even the church is no longer a safe place. The church that is supposed to be a place people run to and take refuge. In the presence of God, they are murdered in cold blood.
So, it is actually a disaster. And any touch on a part of the Catholic Church is a touch on the entire Catholic Church worldwide, because the church is one, we are one all over the world.
As a Catholic that I am here in Benue State, Makurdi Diocese, I can equally go to America, I can go to Europe, I can go to Asia, I can go to any part of the world where human beings are and where the Catholic exists, I can still function effectively over the mass and celebrate, give blessing and consecrate the Body of Christ. So, this is a direct attack not just on the priests who were killed but on the Catholic Church all over the world, all Christians all over the world and indeed all men and women of goodwill all over the world.
Are you not curious that the assailants were aware that there was a mass at that particular time?
I am not too curious because the manner of attack is surprising, we never expected to go to the level of attacking people in the church but we have this around us. One of those priests that were killed, Fr. Joseph Gor, wrote on his social media page, in January or early February that he’s afraid, that there are Fulani herdsmen all over him and he was scared. he said they had refused to leave, that they were very hostile. And that we have nothing to defend ourselves. That is what the young man wrote on his wall, for him just to meet what was waiting ahead of him. It is rather very unfortunate that this has come to happen.
Did he just post it on his social media page or the church receive information that this type of thing was going to happen?
No. We never received any intelligence report that suggested that or anticipated this kind of thing was going to happen. We never did. This had been happening around the place, around the most vulnerable areas close to the River Benue, moving from Katsina-Ala towards Makurdi to Gwer West and then to Agatu. These are the riverine areas that are most vulnerable. But that other side, we never anticipated that. We know that there is violence in the land and all these things had been happening and we know that they could attack from anywhere but we never anticipated that they could attack that place and then attack the church. We never got any information about that because there was no prior information. We never anticipated this.
Was there any report to the police after the late priest wrote about the threat the herdsmen posed?
You see, these are comments on the social media, it wasn’t very formal. He didn’t formally write to us to say, we needed some back up, we needed some security guarantee. It was just a casual expression, chatting with a friend and then he updated his Facebook and wrote that. So it was not a formal report that he sent to us, whether he needed some security back up and it was not met, no. That was not it. It was only a casual statement he made on Facebook. Nobody takes these things serious because people say all kinds of things on the social media. It was only after the event happened that people began to relate with it and bring out those things that were mentioned.
What is the position of the church on the security situation in the country?
The church has never hidden her voice in condemnation of what is happening. Ever since this crisis took this turn, people have several reports written. According to a submission, written by Chief Daniel Ayua Abomtse, Ter Nagi, Ter Tyoshin the first or Ter Nagi as the case may be as they prefer to call him, he said these killings began as far back as 1986, but others have also said that what we have now actually took this dimension as far back as the year 2000. Others say 2010. But the fact is that this thing we are talking about is something that never actually started today.
It is what had been there for some time and we have always made it very clear that what is happening is not right. It’s that sometimes when you talk, people take a lot of things for granted. We have always made our position felt about this issue. And when issues became very hot like in January when the Catholic Bishops of Abuja met in Makurdi, on January 12, they made it very clear.
They said “we condemn what is happening, that human life is sacred, from birth to natural death. Nobody has right and nobody should claim that cows are more important than human lives. And they said the Federal Government should live up to its responsibility of protecting persons and property. After that, the Bishops of the northern region also met and issued the same words, the same communiqué. These are instances where the church had made bold to tell the government that what is happening is not right. The Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria under the leadership of His Grace, Most Reverend Ignatius Kaigama, also spoke in a letter addressed to the President. They told him that look, there is a lot of bloodletting in this country and this has created a lot of tension and it is not good, that the government should do something, more than it is doing. But they have failed us; the Federal Government has failed us.
Should Buhari seek for votes, will the church support him?
Well, the church does not support somebody based on where the person comes from or the person’s religion. The church only advice people to use their conscience to vote for people that are good for leadership. The church will not come out to say, this is the person you will vote for president or governor, we don’t do that. But we encourage people to exercise their civic responsibility and when it is time to vote, they should vote for the right person, so that if they make mistakes, they will blame themselves for the mistake, if they make the right choice then the country will be good for it.
How are you going about the burial of the victims, will it be a mass burial?
Yes, we intend having a mass burial, we had a meeting of the highest decision making of the Diocese in the absence of the Bishop and we have decided that we will have the burial on May 22. We intend to have them buried together, the priests and the faithful who were killed together, as a testimony of eternal communion. They were sharing the communion when they were killed, so we also want to see them around the same table in heaven.
The venue is the pilgrimage centre of the diocese at Sesugh Maria, Ayati. So we are walking towards it, we have already set up a committee that is going to work towards the burial and we believe that the state government should also step in because these people who are killed are indigenes of the state and the situation in which they were killed is something in which the state government should have something to do concerning the burial.
A priest in Mbalom said the same thing happened there. Could you confirm that?
There is a lot of rumours and news spreading all over the place. Recently, they said the roads from Abuja to Makurdi were blocked, that there was no access, that Fulani herdsmen were tracking vehicles and slaughtering people. So, you hear all kind of stories but some of them are true. There’s a lot of panic, the baseline is that people are living in fear. And that is what we have always said that the government has the responsibility of calming people’s nerves. People are living in fear, it is right that they are afraid because there is no security guarantee. So, it has come to a point that some of us enter our rooms and we cannot even sleep at night. We stay awake because you don’t know the next thing that would happen.
Who were those the deceased Priests had last contacts with, and what were their discussions?
Yes, Iorlaha was at mass, he was just about finishing the mass when he was killed. Father Joseph Gor was actually sent by the Bishop to go to Ondo for agricultural training; he just came home for a break. So, he had a funeral mass that morning. Instead of leaving a day before, he said ‘I will stay behind and attend this burial and after this burial I will go’. And the other person was there to cover him in the morning mass, he was preparing to go for the morning mass before both of them were shot dead.