A Nigerian parish priest was shot dead early Sunday morning, before suspected terrorists set fire to the priest’s rectory, with his body burning inside. A second priest assigned to the parish was shot in the shoulder as he fled the violence – his account of the violence has been shared with The Pillar.
The slain priest, Fr. Isaac Achi, was killed shortly after 3 a.m. Jan. 15, when “armed bandits invaded the parish residence of … Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church,” in Kafin Koro, a forested area in the central Nigerian state of Niger, according to local police reports.
According to an additional statement published by local parishes, Achi’s body “burnt beyond recognition inside the [parish rectory].”
The second priest, Fr. Collins Omeh, is the parish’s parochial vicar. He was shot several times as he tried to escape the scene, and is now hospitalized.
From the hospital, Omeh has described the violence to priests in the Diocese of Minna, in messages shared with The Pillar.
According to Omeh: “The bandits, who were about 15 in number, came fully armed and shooting sporadically in the air shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ [God is great]."
The priest said that in the middle of the night, he was confronted at gunpoint in his living quarters inside the rectory compound, and directed to climb through a hole created in the ceiling, and then to take the terrorists to Fr. Achi.
But the men initially had difficulty gaining access to Achi’s quarters, and began shooting their weapons in all directions. Achi was shot in the leg, Omeh said, and the parochial vicar was shot in the hand.
The two priests, held at gunpoint by the terrorists, began praying together, and offered one another the sacrament of confession, Omeh said.
After the men prayed, Omeh said that his pastor urged him to escape.
While Omeh ran from the compound, Achi was shot in the chest by terrorists, the priest said — while the gunmen continued to shout jihadi slogans, he said.
Omeh himself was shot in the shoulder as he ran.
The burned rectory at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Kafin Koro, Nigeria, after a Jan. 15 attack by suspected terrorists. Credit: Fr. Stephen Daniel
It is not clear how long it took police to arrive on the scene.
The statement issued by local police claimed that “tactical teams attached to the Kafin-Koro Div. were immediately drafted to the scene, but the hoodlums had escaped before the arrival of the teams.”
But Omeh told fellow priests from the Diocese of Minna that it took police hours to arrive after they were called — a charge that would seem consistent with claims from Christian leaders in central Nigeria, that police are slow to respond to their reports of violence.
By Sunday afternoon, the Niger state’s police commissioner had reportedly dispatched officers to hunt for assailants, while an investigation into the attack remained underway.
More than a decade ago, Fr. Achi survived a terrorist attack at another Nigerian parish.
Achi was in 2011 pastor of St. Theresa’s Church in Madalla, a suburb of Abuja’s capital, Abuja. During a Christmas Day Mass, 25 parishioners were killed when members of the radical Islamic sect Boko Haram rammed a car packed with explosives onto the parish property.
During a memorial prayer service soon after, Achi had urged forgiveness.
In his homily, the priest appealed to Christians “to learn to forgive all those who deliberately hurt them.”
He urged “Christians to remain prayerful,” stressing that “the power of prayer and love can overcome all situations.”
“Those who perpetrate evil against the state and innocent citizens require prayers from Christian faithful,” Achi added in 2011.
According to a priest in the Minna archdiocese, Achi was in 2013 abducted by a militant group in Madalla, though he was apparently released on the same day he was kidnapped.
Achi’s death comes amid a spate of violence in Nigeria, in which hundreds of Christians have been killed or kidnapped by Boko Haram and other Islamist sects — some of which have called in recent months for the establishment of an exclusive Islamic Caliphate in Nigeria, with a strict imposition of the tenets of sharia law in the democratic country.
On the same day Achi was killed, 25 worshippers were kidnapped from a Protestant service in northwestern Nigeria, when their prayers were reportedly interrupted by a gang of men riding motorcycles.
And the Diocese of Ekiti announced Sunday that Fr. Michael Olubumni Olofinlade was abducted Jan. 14 as he returned to his parish from a pastoral visit. As of Sunday afternoon, the priest's kidnappers had not yet contacted the diocese with a list of demands
Shortly before Christmas, more than 40 people were killed in a Dec. 19 terror attack in central Nigeria – the youngest victim was two years old. In that attack, children died in their homes as terrorists set them ablaze.
Priests have frequently faced violence as terrorism continues unabated.
On April 24, 2018, two Catholic priests, Fathers Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha, were among 17 others who were killed by suspected Fulani herdsmen in an attack on Ukpo-Mbalom community in Gwer East local Government Area of Benue State.
In March 2019, the Archdiocese of Kaduna announced that one of its priests, Fr.John Bako Shekwolo, was kidnapped by unknown persons - he remains missing.
In May 2021, Fr. Alphonsus Bello was killed in a midnight attack on St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church in the Sokoto diocese, while Fr. Joseph Keke was abducted during the attack.
In June 2022, Fr. Vitus Borogo of the Kaduna archdiocese was killed during a terrorist raid on a farm he was visiting.
Fr. Joseph Akete Bako of the same archdiocese died after more than a month of abduction on March 8, 2022.
In July 2022, a priest of Kafanchan Diocese, Fr. John Mark Cheitnum, was killed by kidnappers soon after he was abducted. Another priest, Fr. Donatus Cleophas, escaped from the same abduction.
In fact, Fr. Achi is not the first of his diocese to be killed amid recent violence.
On Jan. 16, 2021, suspected bandits reportedly kidnapped and killed a priest of the Minna diocese in Tufa village along Lambata-Lapai road in Niger State.
According to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), at least 18 priests have been kidnapped in Nigeria since the beginning of 2022, five in the first week of July alone. The statistics indicate that although most were released unhurt, three were killed.
Powered by several jihadi networks, Boko Haram has become a threat to the stability of Nigeria, which has one of the largest Catholic populations in the world.
The Catholic bishops’ conference of Nigeria decried last week the level of insecurity in the country, in a message delivered by conference leaders to Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari.
The bishops lamented that “our Church personnel have been frequent victims in terms of kidnapping or outright murder. The Owo – Ondo State Catholic Church massacre on Pentecost Sunday, June 5, 2022, [which claimed 40 lives] is still very fresh in our hearts.”
Bishop Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji, conference president, urged Buhari “to make sure that our nation is effectively rid of these murderous criminals.”