Cameroon’s Catholic clergy made a special effort to visit the country’s prisons on Christmas Day. “Christ came to free us from all our prisons,” said Archbishop Samuel Kleda as he addressed inmates in the overcrowded New Bell prison in Douala.
The prelate said he wasn’t only referring to the physical prisons where people are clamped into enclosures like the New Bell Prison; rather, Christ liberates “us from the prisons of our hearts.”
He said people can only regain their freedom if they open their hearts to Christ. “Once you recognize your sin and admit that you were wrong, you are free, you are converted, and you get to know how to proceed,” he said.
In Garoua, in the country’s north, Archbishop Faustin Ambassa Njodo said, “Christ goes to his children wherever they are.”
Addressing inmates at the Garoua prison, the archbishop said: “Whatever you did, God will come to you. If we go back to the Scriptures, the Son of God is saying that a medical doctor goes to those who are sick. That means Jesus is coming not for those who believe in Him, but for the sinner.”
Ambassa Njodo exhorted the inmates to open their hearts to receive Christ and they will have eternal life.
Cameroon’s bishops have expressed their concern about detention conditions where poor infrastructure and overcrowding mean the rights of prisoners are violated on a daily basis. Figures from the Ministry of Justice indicate that the overall occupancy rate in 2016 was 164.7 percent, even as that figure varies from prison to prison.
The New Bell Prison in Douala houses some 5,000 inmates, although it was initially constructed to hold just 800 people, giving the facility an occupancy rate of 625 percent. The notorious Kondengui prison in Yaoundé had an occupancy rate of 400 percent in 2016, and the central prison at Maroua generally holds more than 200 percent of its capacity. These figures have not changed much.
And while the country’s clergy sought to uplift the spirits of the inmates, the issue of justice for prisoners also came to the fore, with Kleda noting that good judges are also involved in works of charity.
“A judge who does his work rightly… pays attention to every person, and those who remain in jail are rightly condemned. That is charity,” the archbishop said.
The archbishop expressed disgust at the long pre-trial detention periods: Official statistics indicate that about 55.5 percent of inmates in the country are still awaiting trial.
Calls for peace dominate Christmas messages
In a country battered by a separatist war to the west and Boko Haram terrorism to the north, the message of the peace of Christ has a particularly strong appeal this year.
Ambassa Njodo painted a bleak picture of how far Cameroon had degenerated in recent times.
“We have brothers and sisters from the same families who fight each other, they don’t eat together, and this is not normal,” the archbishop said.
In the troubled North West region where a separatist uprising known as the Anglophone Crisis has been going on for the past three years, Father Gilbert Aurore noted that “we need peace, we need love and we need forgiveness.”
“Jesus Christ being the Prince of Peace has come with that peace so that we may experience life in abundance,” the priest said.
Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions – the North West and the South West – make up about 20 percent of Cameroon’s population, which is majority French-speaking. Anglophones have long complained about marginalization by the predominantly francophone government.
In 2016, peaceful protests by teachers and lawyers in the two regions over the use of French in schools and courts spiraled out of control after a government crackdown. An extremist separatist movement calling for the secession of the Anglophone regions was the result. In three years of fighting, over 3,000 people have been killed, and about 700,000 others forced from their homes.
“The bloodshed really has to stop. We are tired of this fighting,” said Bishop Andrew Nkea of Mamfe, in Cameroon’s South West region.
At St. Joseph Parish, in Tkomberé in the country’s far North region, Father Denis Daba said he had brought a “message of peace and living together, because Christ has come for the unity of God’s children, to draw them closer, especially those who do not know him.”
A similar message was echoed by Archbishop Jean Mbarga of Yaoundé. During a homily in the city’s Our Lady of Victories Cathedral, the archbishop noted that Christmas was a time for “renewal” for families who have worked all year round. He said while people were engaged in such renewal, it was also the time to open their hearts to Christ.
“People have to open their hearts to allow God to return to them. There is need for God to return to public spaces. God must be the foundation of everything we do.”
Mbarga said only when “God takes possession of our lives” can there be a return to peace in Cameroon.