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Pope prays for victims of deadly attacks in Nigeria and Central African Republic

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis called for an end to violence against Christians following deadly attacks in two African countries. Read more »

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At least 11 killed during a Sunday Mass in Nigeria

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis sent his condolences to the victims and survivors of a deadly shooting that occurred during Mass Aug. 6 at a parish in Nigeria.

Nigerians look at blood and clothing at the scene of a deadly shooting by unknown gunmen Aug. 6 at St. Philip's Catholic Church in Ozubulu. Pope Francis said he was "deeply saddened" after at least 11 people were killed and more a dozen others wounded when a gunman opened fire on worshippers that day. (CNS photo/Mike Agada, EPA)

Nigerians look at blood and clothing at the scene of a deadly shooting by unknown gunmen Aug. 6 at St. Philip’s Catholic Church in Ozubulu. Pope Francis said he was “deeply saddened” after at least 11 people were killed and more a dozen others wounded when a gunman opened fire on worshippers that day. (CNS photo/Mike Agada, EPA)

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, expressed the pope’s sentiments in a message dated Aug. 7 to Bishop Hilary Odili Okeke of Nnewi.

Pope Francis, the message said, was “deeply saddened to learn of the loss of life and injury following the violent attack” in St. Philip’s Catholic Church in Ozubulu, a town located in the Nigerian southern state of Anambra.

According to the Nigerian newspaper, The Vanguard, witnesses say a gunman entered during an early morning Sunday Mass and opened fire during the prayer of the faithful.

The BBC and other news outlets reported Aug. 7 that at least 11 people were killed and as many as 18 others wounded as they attempted to flee the carnage. While no suspects have been caught, authorities believe the target was a young businessman involved in a drug deal gone wrong.

The pope extended “heartfelt condolences” to the faithful of the diocese, especially “the families of the deceased and all those affected by this tragedy.”

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Pope Francis demands Nigerian priests accept diocese’s bishop or be suspended

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis is giving priests belonging to the Diocese of Ahiara, Nigeria, 30 days to write a letter promising obedience to him and accepting the bishop appointed for their diocese or they will be suspended.

The papal text in English was posted June 9 on the blog of Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, president of the Nigerian bishops’ conference. Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan of Abuja told Catholic News Service the same day that the text was what Pope Francis said. The Vatican press office released the text June 10.

Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama, right, president of the Nigerian bishops' conference, posted a letter on his blog from Pope Francis that gives priests of the Diocese of Ahiara 30 days promising obedience to the pope and accepting the bishop appointed to their diocese. (CNS EPA)

Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama, right, president of the Nigerian bishops’ conference, has posted a letter on his blog from Pope Francis that gives priests of the Diocese of Ahiara, Nigeria,  30 days to promise  obedience to the pope and to accept the bishop appointed to their diocese. (CNS EPA)

Nigerian church leaders had met Pope Francis June 8 to discuss the situation of Bishop Peter Ebere Okpaleke, who was appointed bishop of Ahiara by then-Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, but who has been unable to take control of the diocese because of protests, apparently by the majority of priests.

Initially the Vatican issued only a short communique on the meeting with the pope, describing the situation in the diocese as “unacceptable” and saying the pope “reserved the right to take appropriate measures.”

The protests were motivated by the fact that Bishop Okpaleke is not a local priest.

In the full text posted later, Pope Francis told the Nigerian leaders, “I think that, in this case, we are not dealing with tribalism, but with an attempted taking of the vineyard of the Lord.” The pope also referred to “the parable of the murderous tenants” in Matthew 21:33-44.

“Whoever was opposed to Bishop Okpaleke taking possession of the diocese wants to destroy the church. This is forbidden,” the pope said.

Pope Francis said he even had considered “suppressing the diocese, but then I thought that the church is a mother and cannot abandon her many children.”

Instead, he said, every priest of the diocese, whether residing in Nigeria or abroad, is to write a letter to him asking for forgiveness because “we all must share this common sorrow.”

Each priest’s letter, he said, “must clearly manifest total obedience to the pope” and indicate a willingness “to accept the bishop whom the pope sends and has appointed.”

“The letter must be sent within 30 days, from today to July 9th, 2017. Whoever does not do this will be ipso facto suspended ‘a divinis’ and will lose his current office,” the pope said, according to the posts.

“This seems very hard, but why must the pope do this?” Pope Francis asked. “Because the people of God are scandalized. Jesus reminds us that whoever causes scandal must suffer the consequences.”

Bishop Okpaleke, the contested bishop, also met the pope and was joined in Rome by other Nigerian bishops and a handful of priests making an unusual kind of visit “ad limina apostolorum” (to the threshold of the apostles) in early June.

While “ad limina” visits usually are done in national groups, the Vatican communique described the Ahiara diocesan visit using the same term. It noted that the nine-person delegation prayed at the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul and in the Basilica of St. Mary Major.

They also participated in a private celebration of the Mass June 8 with Pope Francis. The Vatican did not say if the pope gave a homily.

Later in the day, the pope held a private audience with the group. Members also had met with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, and with Cardinal Fernando Filoni and other top officials from the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples to examine what the Vatican called the “painful situation of the church in Ahiara.”

When Bishop Okpaleke was appointed to the diocese, the announcement was met by protests and petitions calling for the appointment of a bishop from among the local clergy.

Nevertheless, he was ordained a bishop in May 2013, although the ordination took place not in the Ahiara diocese, but at a seminary in the Archdiocese of Owerri.

Ahiara is in Mbaise, a predominantly Catholic region of Imo state in southern Nigeria. Bishop Okpaleke is from Anambra state, which borders Imo to the north.

A petition to Pope Benedict launched by the “Coalition of Igbo Catholics” said, “That no priest of Mbaise origin is a bishop today … is mind boggling. Mbaise has embraced, enhanced the growth of and sacrificed for the Catholic Church, has more priests per capita than any other diocese in Nigeria and certainly more than enough pool of priests qualified to become the next bishop of the episcopal see of Ahiara diocese, Mbaise.”

According to the Vatican, the diocese has close to 423,000 Catholics and 110 diocesan priests.

Trying to calm the situation, in July 2013 Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Onaiyekan to serve as apostolic administrator of the diocese, and the following December he sent Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, then-president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, to Ahiara to listen to the concerns of the diocesan priests and local laity.

Cardinal Onaiyekan joined Bishop Okpaleke on the “ad limina” visit to Rome, as did Archbishop Anthony Obinna of Owerri and Archbishop Kaigama. Three priests, a religious sister and a traditional elder also made the trip

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Pope Francis consoles women rescued from sex traffickers

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Continuing his Year of Mercy practice of going one Friday a month to visit people facing special struggles, Pope Francis paid a surprise visit to a community helping 20 young women get their lives back together after being rescued from prostitution.

Pope Francis sits with members of the Pope John XXIII Community in Rome Aug.12. The pontiff paid a surprise visit to the community that is helping 20 young women get their lives back together after being rescued from prostitution. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Pope Francis sits with members of the Pope John XXIII Community in Rome Aug.12. The pontiff paid a surprise visit to the community that is helping 20 young women get their lives back together after being rescued from prostitution. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

The pope visited the house operated by the John XXIII Community in northeast Rome the afternoon of Aug. 12. The community members, the Vatican said, were “20 women liberated from the slavery of the prostitution racket. Six of them come from Romania, four from Albania, seven from Nigeria and one each from Tunisia, Italy and Ukraine.”

The women’s average age is 30, said a Vatican press statement. “All of them have endured serious physical violence” and are now being protected.

One of the young women, identified only as East European, told Vatican Radio she never dreamed she would be able to see the pope up close and “tell my story to a holy person like him. I was very emotional and kept crying because I could not believe what I was seeing and hearing.”

The young woman said she told the pope that she had been offered a job as a caregiver in Italy, but the offer was fake. Instead, “they kept me locked in an apartment for two weeks, drugged me, tied me up and the men, they did what they wanted with my body.”

She said she was taken to Italy in the trunk of a car and forced into prostitution. When she disobeyed her traffickers, she was beaten, cut with a knife and burned with cigarettes.

When volunteers from the John XXIII Community started visiting her on the streets, she said, not only did she not believe she could escape, but she did not think she was worth saving. “You feel like a sack of trash” thrown on the side of the road, she said.

According to the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis asked forgiveness of the women on behalf of all the men who had used and abused them and for the governments that continue to do little to stop human trafficking.

“You are witnesses of resurrection,” the pope told them.

Pope Francis’ visit, the Vatican said, is another call to combat human trafficking, a reality the pope has described as “a crime against humanity” and “an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ.”

The pope’s “Mercy Friday” visits are part of his personal observance of the Holy Year of Mercy; while leaders of the communities and structures he is visiting are given some advance notice, there is no publicity and no open press availability. Usually, the Vatican releases a few photographs and sometimes a short video clip afterward.

Since January, the pope has visited a home for the aged and a home for people in a persistent vegetative state; a community for recovering drug addicts; a refugee center near Rome and a refugee camp in Greece; a L’Arche community; and a home for sick and aged priests.

The Vatican includes among the Mercy Friday practice several of Pope Francis’ activities the last Friday of July in Poland: his visit to the Nazi’s Auschwitz death camp and to a pediatric hospital and his attendance at the World Youth Day Way of the Cross service, which involved young Iraqis and Syrians as well as youths from other war-torn countries and difficult situations.

 

Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.

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Electricity, development could help stem violence, says Nigerian bishop

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Something developed countries take for granted, electricity, could go a long way to stemming violence often attributed to religion, said a Nigerian bishop. Read more »

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Nigerian cardinal unhurt after attack on his car

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LAGOS, Nigeria — Two bishops from southern Nigeria condemned an attack on a vehicle carrying Abuja Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan and appealed to the government to tackle the issue of growing instability in Edo state.

Archbishop Augustine Obiora Akubueze of Benin City and Bishop Donatus Aihmiosion Ogun of Uromi said the situation was becoming more serious because herdsmen committing the attacks were becoming more brazen.

Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, is pictured in a 2013 photo at the Vatican.Two bishops from southern Nigeria condemned an attack on a vehicle carrying Cardinal Onaiyekan and appealed to the government to tackle the issue of growing attacks in Edo state. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, is pictured in a 2013 photo at the Vatican.Two bishops from southern Nigeria condemned an attack on a vehicle carrying Cardinal Onaiyekan and appealed to the government to tackle the issue of growing attacks in Edo state. (CNS/Paul Haring)

The April 29 attack on the car carrying the cardinal occurred around 5 p.m., as he was en route to Uromi.

Cardinal Onaiyekan told Vatican Radio May 2, “We were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

He said he had tried to avoid speaking publicly about the incident “because they were not targeting me. The car I was riding in was on a public road together with many other cars. We ended up in the middle of one of the attacks that take place every now and then. As the saying goes, we were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Such attacks have become frequent, the cardinal said. “Two or three weeks ago a car in which two or three priests were riding was attacked and one of the priests was seriously injured.”

The cardinal said he could not identify the gunmen and did not know for certain they were Fulani, nomadic Muslim cattle herders. “We didn’t see anyone, we just heard the ‘bam, bam, bam’ of the guns and saw that a bullet pierced the car. I didn’t see anyone. It could have been them (the Fulani), it could have been other criminals, but in the end what matters is that the road is not safe. We cannot go around with an armed escort. That is no way to live.

“I do not believe they were targeting me or that they knew I was in the middle of that chaos,” the cardinal said. “In fact, I imagine that what happened was embarrassing for them because up until now they have attacked people without drawing much attention.

“It was a criminal act,” he insisted, not one motivated by religion because “in all those cars on the road that day there was no way to know if someone was Muslim or Christian.”

The day after the attack, Archbishop Akubueze told newsmen in Benin City, “If something bad had happened to him, what would have been the story? … We thank God nothing happened and we are using this opportunity to appeal to Mr. President to provide adequate security for the citizens of Edo state.”

“If there is no security of lives and property, no investments or meaningful economic development can take place in the state and the nation at large. We need security and we are demanding that from our government,” he said.

The archbishop said the spate of attacks by the so-called herdsmen across the country “is becoming frightening.”

Bishop Ogun said Nigerians, especially in Edo state, “cannot continue to live in fear in our own land because of the activities of these criminals.”

Cardinal Onaiyekan’s driver, who identified himself only as Segun, said he slowed for a pothole.

“I would have passed the spot with speed, but because the cardinal was sleeping, I decided to slow down the vehicle so that he won’t wake up,” he said.

Three men emerged from the local palm tree plantation and started shooting at the vehicle,” he said. Since only one was behind the car, he threw it into reverse and backed up.

When he finally stopped the vehicle, they discovered “that the bullets had shattered the left passenger’s window glass and made huge holes on the panel of the door.”

By Peter Ajayi Dada

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Report counts 5,000 Catholics killed by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria, 100,000 Catholics displaced

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Catholic News Service

A new report has revealed the scale of suffering of Nigerian Catholics at the hands of Boko Haram militants, with 5,000 Catholics killed in one diocese alone.

Boko Haram militants carry food supplies on their heads April 15 as they walk away from a special prayer service at St. Theresa's Cathedral in Yola, Nigeria.  (CNS photo/EPA)

Boko Haram militants carry food supplies on their heads April 15 as they walk away from a special prayer service at St. Theresa’s Cathedral in Yola, Nigeria. (CNS photo/EPA)

A further 100,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Maiduguri, in the northeast of the country, have been displaced by the six-year campaign of violence conducted by the Muslim militant group, according to the “Situation Report on the Activities of Boko Haram in the Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri.”

There are now about 7,000 widows in the diocese and nearly 10,000 orphaned children, said the report. Among the diocese’s displaced are 26 of 46 priests, 200 catechists and 20 religious sisters, the report found.

The diocese includes the entire states of Borno and Yobe and part of Adamawa state. More than 350 churches in the diocese have been the targets of terror attacks with “a good number of them destroyed more than once,” the report said.

Aid to the Church in Need said 22 of the Maiduguri Diocese’s 40 parish centers and chaplaincies have been deserted by Catholics. Many are occupied by Boko Haram militants, who control about three-quarters of the territory of the diocese, the report said. It said 32 of the 40 church-run primary schools have been deserted, and four of the diocese’s five convents are closed.

The information was sent to the U.K. branch of Aid to the Church in Need, and a summary of its findings was issued in a May 11 statement by the charity, which was set up to help persecuted Christians.

Father Gideon Obasogie, the diocesan director of social communications, told the charity: “People are very scared, and those who are able to return home find there is nothing left. … A life lived with much fear is terrible.”

But he added that the persecution had “purified” the faith of the suffering Catholics of the diocese,

“The good Lord has always been on our side,” he said. “He has seen us through thick and thin. Our faith has been purified through persecution.”

 

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Holy See calls for world effort to end Boko Haram terror in Africa

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GENEVA — The Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations in Geneva called on the international community to assist Nigeria and neighboring countries to rid the region of Boko Haram insurgency.

“The Holy See urges an international collaborative effort to address this crisis situation with urgency so as to prevent the extension of Boko Haram and other terrorist groups and their strategy of inflicting suffering on local people and to destabilize Africa even further,” Archbishop Silvano Tomasi told a session of the U.N. Human Rights Council April 1.

Nigeria and its neighbors, including Cameroon, Benin, Chad and Niger, have been beset by Boko Haram’s violent campaign to impose Islamic rule in the region. Based in northeastern Nigeria, leaders of the insurgents have claimed credit for a series of bombings and gun attacks on public markets, churches and isolated communities since 2009.

He said the insurgency requires an “urgent and effective response.” Citing Pope Francis in an address to diplomats accredited to the Holy See in January, Archbishop Tomasi called the situation in Nigeria and its neighbors “a scourge which needs to be eradicated, since it strikes all of use, from individual families to the international community.”

The archbishop also expressed concern that Boko Haram’s recent announcement that it was aligning with the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria shows that “such extremist groups are growing like cancer, spreading to other parts of the world.”

“Crimes in the name of religion are never justified. Massacring innocent people in the name of God is not religion but the manipulation of religion for ulterior motives,” the archbishop told the council.

“It appears the time is ripe for the international community to assist in bringing an end to the violence, which has caused numerous civilian victims,” Archbishop Tomasi said. “Before such violations of international human rights and humanitarian laws we cannot afford to have a posture of indifference that would lead to the widening contagion of violence and also set a dangerous precedent of non-action in response to such horrific crimes.”

 

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For Easter, pope sends assistance to displaced in Iraq, Nigeria

March 30th, 2015 Posted in Vatican News Tags: , , , ,

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — As Holy Week and Easter approached, Pope Francis wanted to show his ongoing concern for people persecuted and displaced by violence in Iraq and in northern Nigeria.

Although not specifying the amount, the Vatican press office said March 27 that the pope was sending aid money to people seeking shelter in Iraq’s Kurdistan region and to the Nigerian bishops’ conference to assist families in the northern part of the country where the terrorist group Boko Haram has been on a rampage.

In addition, the Vatican said, the people of the Diocese of Rome, “united with their bishop,” Pope Francis, held a special collection and will send “colomba” Easter cakes to the displaced in Iraq.

“In Holy Week,” the Vatican statement said, “these families share with Christ the experience of being unjustly subjected to violence and they participate in the suffering of Christ himself.”

Cardinal Fernando Filoni, who visited refugees and displaced people in Iraqi Kurdistan last August, will return for Holy Week, the Vatican said. The cardinal is prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and the former nuncio to Iraq.

“Pope Francis is constantly concerned about the situation of Christian families and other groups who have been the victims of being expelled from their homes and villages, particularly in the city of Mosul and on the Ninevah Plain,” the Vatican said. Terrorists from Islamic State have been active in the region.

“The pope prays for them and hopes that they soon can return and resume their lives on the land and in the places where, for hundreds of years, they lived and wove relationships of peaceful coexistence with all,” the Vatican statement said.

 

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Nigerian church groups organize prayers for missing schoolgirls

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Catholic News Service

LAGOS, Nigeria — Religious groups in Nigeria’s northeastern Borno state have organized prayer sessions and other activities to support the rescue of kidnapped schoolgirls.

But Hassanah Mohammed, a resident of the state capital, Maiduguri, told Catholic News Service that groups have been avoiding nighttime vigils for fear of additional attacks.

A woman holds a sign during a May 5 protest in Lagos, Nigeria, to demand the release of abducted high school girls. The Islamist militant group Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the abduction of 276 schoolgirls during a raid in the remote village of Chibok in April. (CNS photo/Akintunde Akinleye, Reuters)

“Chibok town and Borno state are now on the world map, and we pray that God will touch the hearts of the Boko Haram insurgents and release those innocent girls safely to their parents,’” she said May 8. She added that after about 200 villagers were killed in the state earlier in the week, groups had increased their prayers.

In an overnight attack in mid-April, armed gunmen abducted girls at Chibok Government Girls Secondary School and took them into the forest. Girls who escaped said the men identified themselves as government soldiers who had come to rescue them after gunshots were fired nearby.

By May 8, more than 250 girls remained missing; two had died of snakebites and about two dozen were sick, reported The Associated Press, which was dealing with an intermediary. AP also reported that May 5, 11 more girls, ages 12-15, were taken from other villages in Borno.

Boko Haram, an Islamist militant group with a somewhat undefined leadership and structure, took credit for the mid-April kidnapping. For years the group has attacked Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, leaving an estimated 1,500 people dead in the first three months of this year alone.

The lack of progress in rescuing the girls led to an international campaign, “Bring Back Our Girls,” as well as statements from government and church leaders.

In Maiduguri, Josephine Mohammed said most of the mothers in her religious group had been fasting from 6 a.m. to noon for the safe release of the girls.

The Ladies of St. Mulumba, a Catholic charitable group, condemned the kidnappings as “a shameful act by a shameless and a faceless group.”

The statement urged the kidnappers to pity the abducted girls, their parents and relatives.

“We are sure the insurgents will not like their own little girls, sisters, nieces and wives to be treated this way,” it said.

Some parents said they were considering transferring their children to schools in southern Nigeria, which is considered safer.

At the Vatican May 8, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said Boko Haram is known for “horrible forms of violence.”

“The denial of any kind of respect for life and for the dignity of the human person — even the most innocent, vulnerable and defenseless — calls for the strongest condemnation, arouses the most heartfelt feelings of compassion for the victims and horror for the physical and spiritual suffering and incredible humiliations inflicted on them.”

“We join the multitude of appeals for their liberation and return to normal life,” Father Lombardi said. “We pray that Nigeria, with the commitment of all who can contribute, finds a way to put an end this situation of conflict and hateful terrorism, which is a source of incalculable suffering.”

The White House announced May 7 that it had offered the Nigerian government military, law enforcement and information-sharing assistance in finding the girls and securing their release. Deputy press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that the U.S. ambassador would meet with Nigeria’s national security adviser to coordinate assistance, which would involve the Department of Justice and the FBI providing a range of technical aid and potentially hostage negotiation.

Later the same day, in remarks to the USC Shoah Foundation dinner in Los Angeles, President Barack Obama drew comparisons between the Holocaust and “today’s headlines,” including Syria’s conflict and the kidnappings in Nigeria.

“There are some bad stories out there that are being told to children, and they’re learning to hate early. They’re learning to fear those who are not like them early,” he said.

Though “none of the tragedies that we see today may rise to the full horror of the Holocaust, the individuals who are the victims of such unspeakable cruelty, they make a claim on our conscience. They demand our attention, that we not turn away, that we choose empathy over indifference and that our empathy leads to action.”

By Peter Ajayi Dada

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