(ADDS CONCERNS OVER BUILDING STANDARDS, PERSECUTION)
By BosNewsLife Africa Service
ABUJA, NIGERIA (BosNewsLife)-- Mortuaries in Nigeria's southeastern city of Uyo are overflowing after metal girders and the roof of a crowded church collapsed onto worshippers, killing at least 160 people with the toll likely to rise, officials say. Saturday's tragedy happened at the charismatic Reigners Bible Church International while it was still under construction, church members said.
Workers had allegedly been rushing to finish it in time for Saturday's ceremony to ordain founder Akan Weeks as a bishop, according to congregants.
"I pray for you all in this time of grief," said Christian Ian Berto Cooper in a statement published on the congregation's Facebook page. "May our Lord Jesus Christ be lifted up continuously, receiving all the glory through your Ministry moving forward for He alone is Worthy. Let us not look to the left nor the right but entirely focused on Him our redeemer and soon coming King, Amen."
As prayers were said, mortuaries in Uyo were overflowing from Saturday's tragedy, medical director Etete Peters of the University of Uyo Teaching Hospital told The Associated Press news agency.
Hundreds of people, including bishop Weeks and Akwa Ibom state governor Udom Emmanuel were reportedly inside when metal girders crashed onto worshippers and the corrugated iron roof caved in. Governor Emmanuel and Bishop Weeks, who reportedly preaches that God will make his followers rich, escaped unhurt.
Screaming survivors were streaming out and there were cries from injured victims when computer program analyst Ukeme Eyibio rushed to the scene. "There were trapped bodies, parts of bodies, blood all over the place and people's handbags and shoes scattered," Eyibio told reporters.
Saturday's tragedy also underscored concerns over building standards in the African nation. Reporters complained that church officials attempted to prevent them from documenting the tragedy, trying to seize cameras and forcing some to leave the area.
The governor's spokesman, Ekerete Udoh, told media that the state government would investigate if anyone compromised building standards. Observers say buildings collapse often in Nigeria because of endemic corruption with contractors using sub-standard materials and bribing inspectors to ignore shoddy work or a lack of building permits.
In 2014, 116 people died when a multi-story guesthouse of the Synagogue Church of All Nations collapsed in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city. Most victims were visiting South African followers of the megachurch's influential founder T. B. Joshua.
Two structural engineers, Joshua and church trustees have reportedly been accused of criminal negligence and involuntary manslaughter after a coroner found the building collapsed from structural failures caused by design and detailing errors. But Lagos state government efforts to bring them to court have been foiled by repeated legal challenges that have delayed a trial, The Associated Press news agency reported.
The latest tragedy came as Nigerian Christians are already on edge amid concerns about attacks by Islamic militants in several parts of the country. "Christians in [especially] northern Nigeria experience the most violent persecution in the world," said Open Doors, an aid and advocacy group.
Open Doors partners decided to build a new trauma care centre offering professional, long-term support for survivors of attacks.
Despite persecution, churches have been growing, though some have questioned the prosperity teachings of several church leaders.
Christians comprise nearly half of the country's 187 million population.
Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari is under pressure to improve security for minority Christians in the country.