MARIENBERG, Cameroon (CNS) — Battered by a separatist war to the west, a Boko Haram insurgency to the north and the influx of Central African refugees to the east, Cameroon is a country in crisis.
And with no end in sight, Catholics in Cameroon turned to Mary to intercede for them.
On April 23-24, more than 1,200 Catholics gathered around their bishops at the pilgrimage site in Marienberg, about 115 miles from the country’s capital, Yaoundé.
They were there to reconsecrate Cameroon to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, 12 decades after the German Pallottine Fathers consecrated the country to Mary in a move now considered by Cameroon’s Catholics as the very foundations of Catholicism in the country.
“The presence of all these Christians testifies to the importance that Mary occupies in their life of faith, but also to the thirst for peace that inhabits the Cameroonian people. We should therefore ask God for this peace, but also do everything necessary at our level to maintain it, because peace is a grace, but also a personal effort. And this undoubtedly involves acquiring a quality of God which must also become ours: mercy,” said Bishop Abraham Bouala Kome, president of the Cameroonian bishops’ conference.
“Peace is what is normal; when peace is absent, we are in something abnormal, and we must always look for what is normal,” he said.
Bishop Michael Miabesue Bibi of Buea told of the hardship people face daily in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions, where a separatist war now in its sixth year has killed more than 4,000 people, with more than a million forced to flee from their homes.
He told Catholic News Service that, during recent travels, “I saw so much destruction; I saw children who can’t go to school, and you ask yourself whether we can continue to live like this.”
A 70-year-old retired military officer who identified himself simply as Gabriel told CNS that instead of quietly enjoying his deserved retirement, he is faced with the daily realities of war.
“This is the first time I am going on pilgrimage,” he said. “When I heard that it was a pilgrimage for peace, I couldn’t stay back. Gunshots have become the daily staple for those of us who live in Bamenda. The little business ventures I’d undertaken are all gone as a result of the fighting.”
With a knee to the ground, he said peace was “priceless.”
And while prayer is certainly critical, Bishop Bibi said the root causes of conflict must be addressed if solutions are to be found.
In particular reference to the struggle of Cameroon’s English speakers to break away from the rest of the country and to form a new nation they call Ambazonia, Bishop Bibi said the problem can only be resolved if English speakers are given justice.
“When we talk about justice, it means we think about the common good,” he told CNS.
“If there is something that belongs to everybody, it should be shared equitably. That is what we mean by justice, so I think the moment that everybody feels that they are having what they deserve, they will feel that they are treated with justice.”
For decades, Cameroon’s English speakers have complained about being marginalized. The pent-up frustrations erupted into violence in 2016 when the government responded with lethal force to peaceful protests by Anglophone lawyers and teachers. An extremist uprising ensued and, for the past five years, they have been fighting to create an independent state.
Even as the country’s Catholics look up to Mary for a solution, the man largely credited with negotiating the end to the apartheid regime in South Africa said Cameroon can draw on his country’s example.
“People in Cameroon are suffering and paying a price when there is a solution,” Roelf Meyer told CNS. “We succeeded in making peace in South Africa about 30 years ago. From that experience, I can say there is no problem that cannot be resolved. I believe that our experience in South Africa can be extended and be valuable to the people of Cameroon.”
But, he added, “you have to change your mind and take the responsibility to solve the crisis.”