, 18 February, 2020 / 9:39 AM
Against the backdrop of the most recent case of killings in Cameroon’s Northwestern region that saw up to 22 people lose their lives including a pregnant woman and children, Catholic bishops from around the world have, in a collective statement dated Monday, February 17, called on President Paul Biya’s government to be part of the “proposed Swiss-led peace talks”.
On Friday, February 14, up to 22 civilians were killed in Cameroon’s troubled English-speaking region, including a pregnant woman and several children, a controversial incident that has seen the country's opposition blame the country’s army for conducting a massacre on Ngarbuh villagers and the government attributing the deaths to an “unfortunate accident” due to a fuel explosion.
In a Press Statement from Cameroon’s Ministry of Defense Monday, February 17 availed to ACI Africa, the army spokesman, Colonel Cyrille Atonfack Guemo denies the massacre claims terming them “false allegations.”
“It was quite simply an unfortunate accident, the collateral result of security operations in the region,” the army spokesman states in his February 17 Press Release and confirms, “Five civilians – woman and four children – died, and seven terrorists were neutralized.”
Aware of this incident and many others that have resulted in massive loss of lives and displacement of populations in the Central African nation of Cameroon, some 16 Catholic Bishops from 10 nations across the globe have reached out to the President of the republic in a collective statement.
“We, the undersigned Roman Catholic bishops from across the globe, write to respectfully urge your government to participate in proposed Swiss-led peace talks aimed at ending the violence in Cameroon's North West and South West regions,” reads in part the open letter signed by the 16 Catholic Prelates from outside Cameroon addressed to President Paul Biya and availed to ACI Africa.
The Catholic leaders underscore their neutrality in the Cameroon crisis and clarify, “We stress that we are impartial. We are motivated by our concern about the suffering of unarmed civilians, and the stability and prosperity of Cameroon.”
The 16 Prelates recount in their February 17 statement, “Violence and atrocities on all sides have forced 656,000 Anglophone Cameroonians from their homes, kept 800,000 children from school (including 400,000 from Catholic schools), caused 50,000 people to flee to Nigeria, destroyed hundreds of villages and resulted in a death toll of at least 2,000.”
“Each of these lives is precious, and we mourn their suffering and wish to prevent more loss of life and innocence,” the Church leaders who Shepherd the people of God in South Africa, England, Scotland, Canada, Nigeria, USA, Fiji, Philippines, Ireland, and South Pacific have emphasized in their collective statement copied to Pope Francis.
In their considered view, “There will be no military victory for any side. A lasting solution to Cameroon's problems must come from a mediated process that includes Anglophone armed-separatist groups and non-violent civil-society leaders. If all parties treat each other as they wish to be treated, a solution is possible.”
While applauding the government’s Major National Dialogue last October, the 16 Bishops insist the talks spearheaded by Switzerland seem best placed to resolve the crisis in Cameroon.
“We believe the proposed Swiss-led talks offer the best path to an appropriate political solution through inclusive negotiations,” they have stated and added, “the success of these talks will be critical in Cameroon's journey towards ensuring peace and your legacy as an effective leader in a troubled region.”
The October 2019 dialogue that did not stop the violence had proposed greater self-governance for the Anglophone regions alongside election of local governors. President Biya had also decreed that charges against some 300 Cameroonians arrested because of their connection with the Anglophone crisis be dropped and the opposition leader Maurice Kamto be released.
On February 9, Cameroon held parliamentary elections. The Catholic Bishops of the National Episcopal Conference of Cameroon (NECC) acknowledged the peaceful atmosphere but regretted low voter turnout.
“The Bishops note that, on the whole, the elections took place in a calm atmosphere, despite a timid voter turnout,” NECC President Bishop Abraham Kome told journalists the day after the elections.
Bishop Kome added in reference to the attitude of the eligible voters in Cameroon, “The low turnout undoubtedly means that the basic law in the Electoral Code that governs elections in Cameroon needs to be revised in order to arouse the enthusiasm of the people in the fulfilment of their civic duty.”
“We regret that four months after the holding of the Major National Dialogue, which proposed solutions for ending the crisis in these regions, we are still not satisfied with the situation in these regions,” Bishop Kome said on behalf of the Bishops and added, “Insecurity persists in spite of everything and has prevented many citizens living in these areas from exercising their civil rights.”
In their collective letter coordinated by the Global Campaign for Peace and Justice in Cameroon, the Bishops from across the globe further express the hope that “all interested stakeholders will join these talks (Swiss-led) and show a spirit of cooperation, pragmatism, and realism to ensure these negotiations succeed.”
“This is what the people of Cameroon, your sons and daughters, God's children, expect and deserve,” the Catholic Bishops who include two from Africa have urged 87-year-old President Biya.
“Only true peace will allow Catholic dioceses, clinics, and schools to once again minister safely to the blessed congregants and citizens of Anglophone Cameroon,” the Bishops have told President Biya who has been Cameroon’s head of state for 37 years.
The signatories to the open letter include Bishop Siegfried Jwara of South Africa’s Ingwavuma Vicariate, Bishop Charles Hammawa of Jalingo diocese in Nigeria, Bishop John Keenan of Scotland’s Paisley diocese, Bishop Thomas R Zinkula of Davenport in the U.S., Archbishop Peter Loy Chong of Fiji’s Suva Archdiocese of Suva, and Cardinal Soane Patita Mafi of Tonga in South Pacific.
Four Prelates from Canada were among the signatories: Bishop Noel Simard of Valleyfield; Bishop Bart van Roijen of Corner Brook and Labrador; Bishop Albert Thevenot of Prince Albert; and Archbishop Donald Bolen of Regina.
Irish Bishops Ray Browne of Kerry and Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan of Waterford et Lismore also signed alongside English Bishop Terence Drainey of Middlesborough and his compatriot Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury diocese.
Bishop Jose Cabantan of Malaybalay diocese in the Philippines and the retired Bishop of Novaliches in the same country, Antonio R Tobias also signed the February 17 open letter that was shared with Pope Francis.
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ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.
Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa