Local bishop responds to repeated abductions attempts of priests in the centre of the Ejagham region, in the diocese of Mamfe.
In a pastoral letter addressed to his Catholic faithful, entitled: “Raise not your band against the Anointed of Yahweh”, Bishop Andrew Nkea condemns the abductions of priests in his diocese, describing them as an instrument of extortion employed by some of the members of the Ambazonia Restoration forces in retaliation for the participation by the bishop in the process of national dialogue for the re-establishment of peace in Cameroon.
In this document, which has just been received by the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) the bishop of the Anglophone diocese of Mamfe expresses his great concern for the safety of his priests and describes a series of crimes that reflect the insecurity these men have been living in since the end of October. Father Felix Sunday, a Nigerian and the parish priest of Afap, was abducted by members of the ADF just after he had finished celebrating Holy Mass in a chapel in a mission station and was returning to celebrate a second Mass in Afap. Two other priests were more fortunate, managing to escape by chance from planned ambushes prepared for them with the same objective. Most recently, at the beginning of November, four armed men entered the parish of Kembong and held the parish priest at gunpoint, demanding that he and his assistant priest pay 1 million CFA francs. All those held up in this way ultimately managed to avoid paying any ransom.
As the Bishop states in his letter, the principal aim of the attacks appears to be an act of reprisal against him for his involvement in the Great National Dialogue in the capital Yaoundé. Those fighting to establish the breakaway region of Ambazonia – in the Anglophone region of the Southern Cameroons – are opposed to these meetings and have consequently demanded that all who took part in the ‘Manyu Dialogue’ must pay a fine of 500,000 Central African francs. Apparently, the abductors told their captives that their target was the bishop and that the priests themselves would be in danger until he had paid this fine. “The truth is that I don’t have this kind of money to pay to anybody”, Bishop Nkea explains in his letter.
But aside from the question of money, Bishop Nkea is horrified at the fact that the authors of these crimes are local young men from the areas where his priests have fulfilled their pastoral duties throughout the crisis at the cost of great personal danger. Mamfe has been one of the places most seriously affected by the so-called ‘Anglophone crisis’. “The violence has escalated and resulted in death, loss of property, grave insecurity, many displaced persons and many refugees who escaped into Nigeria”, he writes.
Yet throughout all these difficulties, Bishop Nkea explains, the priests have continued to comfort and accompany their people. “Through the heavy gun shots, the fire and the dangers to life, our heroic priests remained among their people as true shepherds who would never abandon their sheep in times of danger. Like Jesus the Good Shepherd, the priests of the Diocese of Mamfe were ready at all times to “lay down their lives for their sheep”(Jn.10:15). This pastoral consciousness and commitment even ended up in the tragic death of Rev. Fr. Cosmas Ondari Omboto, the Parochial Vicar of Kembong Parish. Yet the priests did not feel discouraged and they did not abandon their flock, not even in Kembong”, he writes.
The bishop emphasised the consequences these most recent incidents are having for all the people: “These boys claim that they took up guns to protect the population and it is a great contradiction that these guns are now being used to terrorize the very population they claimed to be protecting. We all joined together to decry the brutality of the military against the people, but now it is our own children who have turned against their own people – and they think it is normal?”
The year 2019 will see the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the diocese of Mamfe in Cameroon. However, owing to the prevailing social and political crisis that has so shaken the northwest and southwest regions of the country over the past three years, the diocese will not be celebrating this anniversary. On the contrary, owing to the constant threat to the lives of his priests, Bishop Nkea has decided to take drastic measures and withdraw all his priests from the parishes of Kembong, Ossing and Eyumojock until the Catholic faithful in these places “can offer a written guarantee of the security of these priests who are working for them”. In addition, he is suspending “all development projects in these parishes, because the very people for whom the projects are meant have made the areas unsafe for any development, and even those who work on these projects are not safe.”
Bishop Nkea concludes by appealing to those involved to adopt a different attitude in order to be able to emerge from the spiral of violence that is affecting the region and “so that their priests can return as soon as possible to their parishes and continue to work in peace”. And he adds: “There is no family without difficulties, but the Christian faith helps us to solve our problems peacefully, without violence, and move ahead as one family.”