Southern Cameroons Crisis: Roman Catholic Priest beaten and abducted by Francophone soldiers!! Vatican won’t talk
A priest has been filmed being beaten by soldiers and dragged into a military vehicle in broad daylight in Cameroon. Father Tobias Bekong was abducted on January 12 in Buea in the South West Region. His parishioners say they have no idea why he was taken by members of Cameroon’s elite military force called the Rapid Intervention Battalion or BIR. He was released very late the same day, prompting civil society groups to question why security forces can behave with such impunity.
A local source (anonymous to protect him) says that soldiers ran into the church premises without permission, seizing the priest without asking who he was. His car was ransacked, he was dragged across the courtyard and taken away in a military vehicle.
Father Bekong’s abduction comes as global attention focuses on the Central African nation, which is currently hosting the month-long Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) football tournament. For weeks, separatist militias demanding their own Anglophone country they call ‘Ambazonia’ have threatened to disrupt football games being held in the English-speaking South West Region. Some human rights groups called for a ceasefire, urging the government of President Paul Biya to keep AFCON and civilians safe by announcing a road map toward peace talks mediated by a third party. However, the government continues to pursue a military strategy against the separatist fighters. It has been accused of heavy-handed tactics, including arbitrary arrests, burning of homes, and extrajudicial killings of civilians.
Since AFCON began in early January, there have been improvised explosions, gun battles in and around Buea causing casualties, and the assassination of a respected opposition senator. All employees of the local council have been ordered to attend matches, while academic and support staff at the University of Buea have been encouraged to fill the stadium. There are rumours that officials are paying local people to attend football matches in defiance of boycott demands from separatists. Photos of empty venues during games have circulated on social media. The teams from Mali and Tunisia were reported to have suspended practice sessions fearing they might be vulnerable to attack.
The escalating violence is a blow to the reputation of the Biya government which had assured international football officials that players and spectators would be safe. Cameroon’s plans to host AFCON have twice been postponed: first because of unpreparedness, and then due to Covid. There was embarrassment at the start of the tournament when Cameroon’s mascot was seen wearing a bulletproof vest, surrounded by soldiers. There has also been concern about the spread of Covid, following the misappropriation by Cameroonian officials of $335 million in pandemic mitigation funds provided by the IMF.
In 2021, separatist groups set off more than 80 IEDs, as violence increased in the Anglophone regions. The UN estimates 700,000 out of a population of six million Anglophones have been displaced, and a million children have been unable to attend school for five years due to a separatist-imposed boycott and insecurity. Separatists also enforce a weekly “ghost town” in the Anglophone regions, preventing normal activity every Monday, with sometimes lethal consequences for those who violate the ban. Reputable international rights watchdogs report atrocities against civilians by both government soldiers and armed separatists, charging all sides with behaving with impunity.
Religious figures have equally been targets of both sides. At least seven clergy have been assassinated since 2017, and priests and nuns have frequently been subject to intimidation and attack. As they attempt to preach peace, they face kidnapping for ransom by separatists and arbitrary arrest by government forces.
A local NGO, the Release Them Campaign, claims there are 3,500 Anglophone prisoners of conscience in Cameroon’s nine listed jails and dozens of police and military detention centres around the country. However, this estimate has not been substantiated.
Father Bekong was ordained in 2012. He serves at St Charles Lwanga Parish in Molyko, Buea, and is the principal of St Paul’s College Bojonga in Limbe where several AFCON matches are being played.
A local source who must remain anonymous lamented that the BIR is able to behave without regard to due process because there is a lack of international diplomatic pressure on the Cameroon authorities. In 2019, BIR, which reports directly to President Biya, looted a world heritage site at Bafut in Anglophone North West Region. An Amnesty International report accused the force of torturing and killing civilians.
“The BIR have been told that Biya is untouchable and has the backing of the global community,” said the Anglophone source. “They can behave like colonialist masters. That is why we are fighting them.”
Human rights groups say they regret that rather than use AFCON as an opportunity for peace, listening to the voices of clergy on the ground, the Cameroonian government has instead harmed and detained a religious authority. They say there is a need for sustained pressure by international partners of Cameroon, including the Vatican, to move the violent actors toward a just resolution around a peace table. A year ago, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, visited Cameroon, urging President Biya to join inclusive peace talks mediated by an impartial party such as the Swiss Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. The Cameroon government did not act on his suggestion.
Source: Independent Catholic News