YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – A murdered priest is the center of dispute between the Cameroon government and a local bishop, who claims the cleric was shot down by the military.
Kenyan Father Cosmas Omboto Ondari, a Mill Hill Missionary serving as the parochial vicar of St. Martin of Tours Parish in Kembong village in the troubled Cameroon South West region, was killed on Wednesday in what initial reports said was the result of a cross-fire between government forces and separatist fighters.
The separatists are seeking independence for the English-speaking areas of Cameroon, which has a French-speaking majority.
The Cameroon communications minister quickly denied that state forces were responsible for the shooting.
“The killing was not done by the military,” Issa Tchiroma Bakary tweeted.
The country’s defense minister, Joseph Beti Assomo didn’t only absolve the military, he also accused separatists who have been fighting government forces of killing the priest.
“The preliminary investigations reveal that the authors of this criminal act did this to discredit the defense and security forces,” he said in a statement.
Assomo also claimed that a U.S.-based advocate for the separatists “promised to kill any foreigner found in the Northwest and Southwest regions so as to draw the attention of the international community which has not paid any attention to the crisis.”
“The Man of God was not killed by the Cameroon military. Preliminary investigations show that Father Cosmas Ondari was shot by assailants dressed in combat outfit,” said Col. Didier Badjeck, an army spokesman.
However, Bishop Andrew Nkea of Mamfe says Cameroon’s military is to blame.
The bishop spoke to the BBC after meeting with parishioners who were on the scene when Ondari was killed.
“The Christians explained to me that there was a military vehicle that was coming into the village, and as they were driving into the village, they were shooting. Father tried to escape but was shot right at the church door… He fell there. The other Christians managed to escape to the back of the church, others including a seminarian escaped to father’s house and other places,” Nkea said Nov. 23.
In a statement issued on Sunday, the bishop said that he “counted 21 bullet holes on the door of the church…the blood of the murdered priest was still clearly seen on the cemented entrance, just at the door. They (the military) were actually shooting into the Church.”
Nkea said that Ondari was “brutally and recklessly murdered” and called for a thorough investigation into the killing, so the assailants can be caught and prosecuted.
The bishop said the killing of the priest could deal a devastating blow to the Church in the conflict-ravaged area.
“This is very demoralizing not only for the Christians but also for the young priests we have around, because as we are speaking, I have closed down fifteen parishes because of the insecurity. People have run away,” he explained.
Nkea rebuked government officials who keep denying that the priest was shot by the military, noting that they are never at the scene of the violent incidents on which they comment.
“We are not arguing over the truth. I pray Mr. Minister to verify what he is saying before he goes on the air, because it is very disheartening that we are suffering, and our minister is talking about something he does not know,” he said.
“I don’t sleep in the night. When I sleep at night, at the bang of every door, I jump off from my bed and I go under, because I don’t know who is coming or what is happening. Nobody feels safe. If I am the bishop and I feel like this, what more of the ordinary people. But I cannot abandon the simple, innocent people who are just living their lives in their villages. I want to be with them. They are Cameroonians who love their country, they just want to live in peace, but they are not safe,” the bishop continued.
Kenya begins probe into the killing
Kenya’s representative to Cameroon issued a Nov. 24 statement saying it views the murder of Ondari as an urgent matter.
“As we mourn the death of one of our citizens, the ministry continues to relentlessly pursue answers on this sad event,” said Macharia Kamau, principal secretary of Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
He promised the Catholic Church and the public that the Kenyan government will not abandon its commitment to the safety of Kenyans outside the country.
“We encourage our nationals to remain vigilant, especially in areas where security cannot be guaranteed.”
Ondari is the third foreign missionary to have been killed in the conflict, which is taking place in Cameroon’s North West and South West Regions.
In October, U.S. Baptist missionary Charles Truman Wesco was killed in the northwestern town of Bambui, near Bamenda.
In July, Father Alexander Nougi Sob was killed in the southwestern town of Muyuka.
The “Anglophone crisis” that started two years ago as a teachers’ and lawyers’ strike in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon mutated into demands for an independent state called Ambazonia.
The government says at least 1,000 civilians and 200 soldiers have been killed in the conflict, and human rights groups say more than 300,000 people have fled the region due to the fighting.