Against the backdrop of escalating violence that has left thousands dead, the newly-ordained bishop of Mamfe, in Cameroon’s troubled South West Region, has sought to give people a sense of hope.
“I come in peace. I come with hope,“ said Bishop Aloysius Fondong Abangalo in comments to the press shortly after his episcopal consecration.
Fondong Abangalo, appointed bishop on Feb. 22, takes over a diocese where government soldiers and separatist fighters have been engaged in running battles since 2017, when the military burnt down several villages in Mamfe in retaliation for separatist attacks on military installations.
English speakers make up about 20 percent of the population of Cameroon and are concentrated in the North West and South West Regions, while the rest of the country is predominantly French speaking.
The Anglophone crisis began when the central government violently suppressed a 2016 protest led by teachers and lawyers claiming the British-based education infrastructure and common law legal system were being taken over by the Francophone majority, the latest case of marginalization and discrimination experienced by the English-speaking minority.
The next year, a separatist rebellion broke out, with militants declaring they wanted to set up a new country called Ambazonia.
Mamfe continues to be a center of the conflict.
In February, the dormitory of Rosary College Okoyong – a renowned Catholic girls’ school in Mamfe – was torched by gunmen who accused the school of preparing to celebrate a national event organized by the central government in Yaoundé.
“I have been appointed Bishop of Mamfe during a very difficult moment in the history of Cameroon,” Fondong Abangalo said on May 5.
“Many would have loved to be part of this celebration, but because of the fear of the unknown, they prefer to stay back. There is no doubt that the territory of the diocese of Mamfe has experienced the worst casualties in what has come to be known as the Anglophone crisis. A cross section of the diocese has been shut down and many of our Christians and our brothers and sisters constitute a greater part of Internally Displaced Persons, with many more seeking refugee status outside the country,” he said.
The president of the Bishops’ Conference of Cameroon, Archbishop Andrew Nkea of Bamenda, noted the devastation the war has caused.
“Bishop Aloysius, you are called to be the Bishop of this great Diocese of Mamfe – the One Family Diocese – at a time when this diocese has known very dark days with war that has rocked the North West and the South West Regions for the past five years,” Nkea said.
“Many of your Christians are either Internally Displaced Persons in other towns of Cameroon or refugees in Nigeria. Farms have been abandoned. Businesses have been closed down and some schools have grown into forests and become hunting grounds for cane rats and antelopes, snakes and monkeys,” the archbishop said.
“You are inheriting a Christian people who have been haggard and battered by the sufferings of the past years, and yet they are yearning for a bright future. You have come to Mamfe as an apostle of hope to the people of this diocese,” he said. “This war started in Mamfe and I am convinced that the end of this war will come from Mamfe.”
Fondong Abangalo said he recognized the daunting task in front of him. The bishop said he was coming to Mamfe “ready to support in any way possible the initiatives taken so far to put an end to this war. War is never a solution to any problem. In fact, war always leaves a people worse off than it met them.”
Referencing Pope Francis’s efforts to restore peace in South Sudan, particularly when he kissed the feet of the warring South Sudan leaders during a meeting at the Vatican, the bishop said, “I know it is not possible for me to kiss the feet of those who have kept the steam of this war. However, as your brother, I stand here today and I beg each of you from my heart: Please, let’s do whatever it takes to put an end to this war. Let us look at the misery of our brothers and sisters and give peace a chance.”
Nkea reiterated the Catholic Church’s commitment to peace and gave a warning to those who promoted violence.
“An apostle of peace is a promoter of justice without violence…for all who live by the sword shall die by the sword,” the archbishop said.
He also emphasized the importance of hope.
“Where hope is absent, faith itself is called into question. Love too is weakened by the loss of this virtue,” Nkea said.