Cameroon bishops deplore election fraud amid attacks on Catholic clergy

OXFORD, England (CNS) — Catholic bishops have complained of irregularities during Oct. 7 elections in Cameroon’s conflict-torn English-speaking areas after a seminarian was killed by government troops in the latest of several anti-church incidents.

A woman casts her ballot Oct. 7 at a polling station during the presidential election in Yaounde, Cameroon. Catholic bishops have complained of irregularities during Oct. 7 elections in Cameroon’s conflict-torn English-speaking areas, after a seminarian was killed by government troops in the latest of several anti-church incidents. (CNS photo/Zohra Bensem, Reuters)

“This presidential election took place in a social and security environment never previously experienced,” the bishops’ conference said in a report released Oct. 9.

“We urge officials charged with its organization to take account of the failures and distortions we observed, and ensure elections are run well without irregularities in the future,” the bishops said.

The report followed national elections in which 85-year-old President Paul Biya was widely expected to win a seventh term. Official results had yet to be released Oct. 12.

It said the Catholic Church had deployed 231 observers across Cameroon, but that 42 withdrew because of safety concerns in the English-speaking northwest and southwest regions, while others had been refused access to voting sites by “vigilante committees.”

Many English-speaking citizens had remained “stuck at home” because of insecurity, and no voting provisions had been made for those displaced by current violence, according to the report.

The Catholic Church’s five archdioceses — four French-speaking and one mostly English-speaking — account for a third of Cameroon’s 24.8 million inhabitants, with Protestants and Muslims each making up around a quarter.

Army units have been deployed since 2016 in the English-speaking regions, where separatists declared an independent state, “Ambazonia,” in October 2017 after protesting the imposition of French in courts, schools and administrative centers and demanding restitution of a federal system which operated till 1972.

Human rights groups have condemned atrocities by both sides in the territories.

The Vatican-based Caritas Internationalis warned this summer at least 172,000 people had fled “running battles” between soldiers and pro-independence fighters, adding that “whether a person speaks English or French has become a reason to kill.”

Shots were fired in May at Archbishop Samuel Kleda’s residence in Douala after he urged President Biya’s government to negotiate with the separatists. On July 20, Father Alexandre Sob Nougi, education director in the Diocese of Buea, was killed in a roadside confrontation.

Most recently, Archbishop Cornelius Esua of Bamenda said a seminarian, Gerard Anyangwe, was shot dead by government troops in an unprovoked Oct. 4 attack outside a church in Bamessing, a week before beginning.

The French-language La Croix daily said the latest killing had “sent shock waves through the church,” with Catholic parishioners in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions “no longer considered safe from violence.”

In an Aug. 24 pastoral letter, the bishops called for “peaceful, free and transparent elections,” and urged Christians to become involved “in a spirit of service and generosity for the good of all.” They called on voters to back candidates capable of tackling corruption and insecurity and “restoring Cameroon’s battered image.”

However, in its Oct. 9 statement, the bishops’ conference cited “flagrant breaches” of the electoral code, including the location of polling booths in police stations and false registration of deceased or absent voters.

“Peace in our country is a precious gift from God. We must all preserve it in every circumstance of our common life,” the bishops said in calling on voters to refrain from “violence, pillage and vandalism” in response to the final vote.

In August, Cardinal Christian Tumi, retired archbishop of Douala, said he was postponing a church-brokered peace conference, co-sponsored by Protestant and Muslim leaders, because “voices of skepticism, doubt and hostility” indicated more time was needed.