13 June 2022, The Tablet

Owo atrocity not caused by climate change, bishop tells Irish President

President Higgins denied that he suggested that climate change was to blame for the terrorist attack.

Owo atrocity not caused by climate change, bishop tells Irish President

The altar at St Francis Xavier Church the day after at least 50 worshippers were killed and more injured by gunmen during the Pentecost Mass, in Owo, Nigeria
CNS photo/Temilade Adelaja, Reuters

The Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Ondo, Jude Arogundade, has criticised Irish President Michael Higgins for his statement on the Pentecost Day massacre at St Francis Church in Owo, Ondo State Nigeria, where he also referenced climate change.

As the Pentecost Mass on 5 June was ending terrorists entered the church, sprayed worshippers with gunshots, and hurled dynamite at them. The bodies of members of the congregation, primarily women and children, many dismembered and with organs spilling on the ground, littered the church. At least 40 people died and 126 were injured.

The terrorists reportedly escaped by hijacking cars outside the church. No arrests have been made, but eyewitnesses suspected Fulani herdsmen who have been disputing land rights with local farmers.

Adeyemi Olayemi, a lawmaker in Ondo, said the attack was believed to have been carried out by bandits in retaliation for recent restrictions by the state government on grazing in Ondo, including in forests where the assailants have carried out attacks. “We have enjoyed improved security since herdsmen were driven away from our forests by this administration,” Mr Olayemi said. “This is a reprisal attack to send a diabolical message to the governor.”

It appears that in his message President Higgins took up the suggestion that herders were responsible for the massacre. President Higgins today denied that he then went on to suggest that climate change was to blame for the terrorist attack because herders were experiencing difficulty finding pasture for their herds.

In a press release dated 7 November on the massacre in St Francis Cahurch in Owo, Nigeria, the Irish President expressed “my deepest condolences to the families of all those killed and injured”, but went on: “That such an attack was made in a place of worship is a source of particular condemnation, as is any attempt to scapegoat pastoral peoples who are among the foremost victims of the consequences of climate change … The solidarity of us all, as peoples of the world, is owed to all those impacted not only by this horrible event but in the struggle by the most vulnerable on whom the consequences of climate change have been inflicted.” The press release mentioned “food security” issues in Africa.

Today, President Higgins said that he had made no link between climate change and the attack.

In a letter dated 10 June, headed in bold capital letters: “Setting the Record Straight: The Massacre At St Francis Catholic Church Owo Has Nothing To Do With Climate Change And Food Security Issues In Africa”, Bishop Jude Arogundade of Ondo thanked President Higgins for condemning the attack and offering his sympathy to the victims. He queried President Higgins extending his condemnations to “any attempt to scapegoat pastoral peoples who are among the foremost victims of the consequences of climate change”.

The bishop then referred to President Higgins’ call for solidarity among “all … peoples of the world” with “the struggle by the most vulnerable on whom the consequences of climate change have been inflicted”.

Bishop Arogundade said: “It is very clear to anyone who has been closely following the events in Nigeria over the past years that the issues of terror attacks, banditry, and unabated onslaught in Nigeria and the Sahel Region and climate change have nothing in common.”

While endorsing the “judicious use of resources” and “responsibility of every one of us to take care of our earthly home”, as advocated by Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si’, the bishop pointed out that the duty to preserve the environment begins first “with the duty to protect the lives of the unborn child, children, men and women” and he appealed “to those who are trying to take advantage of this horrific event to project any form of ideological agenda” to desist from such appeals.

Acknowledging the close relationship between his diocese and Ireland, the bishop insisted, “Irish men and women laid the foundations of the faith for us in this part of the world. To their eternal memories we remain grateful”.

Sr Kathleen McGarvey, provincial leader in Ireland of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles, who has spent many years in Nigeria where she helped found the Interfaith Forum of Muslim and Christian Women’s Association (the Women’s Interfaith Council), said President Higgins’s “use of words reveals the ignorance of our leaders, whether conscious or unconscious, of the alarming spread of insecurity and violence in Nigeria”. The cause was “the very inadequate and bad governance in the country, beginning at the highest level”. It is easy to exploit “lines of division along religion, ethno-regional and political loyalties”, she said, which are then “exploited and strengthened by the political elite class, particularly by the Muslim elite of Northern Nigeria”.

The President’s office told The Tablet: “The President has utterly and unequivocally condemned the attack on St Francis Catholic Church in Owo, Nigeria and expressed his particular horror that such an attack could happen in a place of worship. The President’s comments with regard to climate change related to the plight of pastoral peoples in the region and the President made no link in his statement between climate change and the attack itself. The President recognises the long connections between Ireland and the Diocese of Ondo and once again offers his deepest condolences and solidarity to the families of those who lost their lives in this horrific, indefensible action, and all those impacted by the attack.”

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