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Bishops refuse ransom for kidnapped priests, lay people

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ALEXIS HUGUET / AFP

John Burger - published on 09/22/22

Paying abductors in Cameroon would set "dangerous precedent," head of episcopal conference says.

The head of the Catholic bishops’ conference in Cameroon has ruled out paying any ransom for nine Catholics who were abducted from a village in the west of the country.

“We will not pay a dime” to the kidnappers of five priests and four lay persons taken from St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Nchang on September 16, said Archbishop Andrew Nkea Fuanya of Bamenda, president of the Episcopal Conference of Cameroon. Paying a ransom, he said, “would create a dangerous precedent.”

The kidnapping occurred when about 30 armed persons entered Nchang and set fire to St. Mary’s church. It remains unclear just who the attackers and kidnappers are, though some have referred to them as separatists fighting for independence for the Anglophone area of Cameroon. The separatist movement accuses the Francophone government in Yaounde of discriminating against English speakers. 

Fides, the information service of the Pontifical Mission Societies, reported that Archbishop Nkea said the kidnappers initially demanded a ransom of $100,000, but then started bringing it down and have ended up asking for $50,000.

The archbishop told reporters that the separatists said they attacked St. Mary’s out of anger because the Catholic Church does not support their struggle. 

Catholic News Service on Wednesday quoted Fr. Christopher Eboka, the communications director of the Mamfe Diocese, where St. Mary’s is located, as saying he has spoken to all nine people who were kidnapped. “They say they have not been tortured but, every day, they are being reminded that if the ransom isn’t being paid, they will be killed one after the other,” Fr. Eboka said. 

Bishop Aloysius Fondong Abangalo of the Mamfe Diocese, who visited the church shortly after the attack, accused young men from the Nchang village of having joined separatist fighters, popularly known locally as “Amba Boys,” Fides reported. 

A spokesman for one of the main separatist groups has blamed the attack on splinter groups. Capo Daniel, deputy defense chief of the Ambazonia Defense Forces, said that some splinter separatist groups are attacking everyone they suspect of collaborating with Cameroon’s central government in Yaounde. 

“He said the splinter groups do not want schools the fighters consider instruments of manipulation and assimilation of English speakers by the French-speaking majority to open in western Cameroon. The Roman Catholic Church has opposed closure of schools by fighters,” Voice of America explained

“We are sending a warning to all the splinter Ambazonia forces that there is no justification for attacks against religious institutions that are the backbone of Ambazonia communal life,” Daniel said. “Whatever differences we have with some of the leadership of the Catholic Church, the church is sacrosanct and cannot be torched in this manner. Our fight is against the Cameroon state and its institutions and not against the Church.”

Ambazonia, officially the Federal Republic of Ambazonia, is an unrecognized breakaway state in the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon.

Fides identified the kidnapped mostly with partial names: Fr. Emmanuel, Fr. Barnabas, Fr. Cornelius, Fr. Elias and Fr. Job-Francis, Sister Jacinta, Mrs. Kelechukwu, Mr. Nkem Patrick and Blanch Bright.

The spokesman of the Cameroon Episcopal Conference, Fr. Humphrey Tatah Mbuy, stressed that “there have been kidnappings of religious in the past, but these were isolated cases.” This event, he said, with the church burned down and nine kidnapped, “is an unprecedented case.”

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