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SUFFERING FOR THEIR HOMELAND The Diocese is home to many Nigerian Catholics and priests, who are being impacted by the recent spike of violent persecution against Christians in Nigeria.

With a sizeable community of Nigerian Catholics in the Diocese, the impact of the tragic attack that took place in Owo, Nigeria on Pentecost Sunday, June 5 and subsequent acts of violence occurring in the sub-Saharan African nation continue to reverberate locally.

“It’s so painful,” said Bede Agbakwuru, a parishioner of St. John XXIII in Fontana. “That’s our people there. When they go to church nobody knows what will happen.”

Sister Chilee Okoko, D.M.M.M., Director of the Diocesan Department of Life, Dignity and Justice, is concerned for her family, who live in the Igboland region of Nigeria. “Every day you are so worried you will get the news that one of your relatives has been killed,” she said.

In the June 5 attack, gunmen believed to be Islamic extremists opened fire on Catholic worshipers attending Pentecost Mass at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Owo, Ondo State, in southwestern Nigeria. Initial reports suggested that more than 50 people were killed, including children, and others injured. At least 40 people are confirmed dead, with more than 60 injured people still in the hospital. The victims spanned in age from a 2 and a 3-year-old all the way to 85. A priest present during the attack said he heard three or four explosions in addition to gunfire, with the entire attack lasting 20-25 minutes.

Attacks on Catholic and Christian worshippers have since continued in Nigeria, resulting in more deaths and kidnappings, including many Catholic priests.

“They are systematically creating fear in the clergy and the people,” said Sr. Chilee. “They want to destroy Christianity.”

In addition to the sadness and fear being felt by Nigerian Catholics in the Diocese, many are frustrated that the Nigerian government has done little to stop the violence and bring the assailants to justice. Father Benedict Nwachukwu, V.F., Pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Rancho Cucamonga, says his Nigerian parishioners pray about the crisis daily.

“Our prayer is a lamentation,” said Fr. Nwachukwu, who is Nigerian. “‘Lord, who will save Nigeria?’”

Agbakwuru says Nigerian Catholic men’s and women’s groups at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Ontario have been sharing prayers and information updates about the violence in Nigeria when they meet for the twice monthly Igbo language Mass, and also through the WhatsApp app. A prayer vigil to bring together all the Nigerian communities of the Diocese is being planned, Fr. Nwachukwu said.

It is customary for some local Nigerian Catholics to visit their home country around Christmas time, but the outbreak of violence back home has many thinking twice.

“It’s a big issue even to travel,” said Agbakwuru. “It’s like, how are you going to go home? What’s going to happen?”

More Christians are killed for their faith in Nigeria than any other country worldwide – at least 4,650 in 2021 and nearly 900 in the first three months of 2022 alone. Christian leaders and advocates continue to highlight and document the brutal ongoing persecution against Christians – often at the hands of their Muslim neighbors – in Africa’s most populous nation.

The Diocese of San Bernardino currently has 36 priests in ministry who hail from Nigeria. In addition, the Diocese of Ondo, where the Pentecost attack took place, has sent priests to San Bernardino to minister here in the summer months, and Bishop Jude Arogundade, its current Ordinary, visited in 2019.

According to Sr. Chilee, 22 Catholic priests have been kidnapped in Nigeria this year, alone, four of whom were killed. This strikes a somber note with the Nigerian priests of the Diocese.

“It wounds me that my brother priests back home are feeling insecure in their ministry,” said Fr. Nwachukwu. “A call to the priesthood is a call to carry the cross of Jesus.”