YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Just hours after a bishop in Cameroon’s volatile North West region called for an end to the ongoing civil conflict, two priests were kidnapped.

Father Franklin Banadzem Dindzee, the director of youth ministry for the Diocese of Kumbo, and Father Patrick Atang of Mbessa Parish were taken late at night on Thursday when they were travelling to the town of Elak-Oku.

Hours earlier, Bishop George Nkuo of Kumbo had publicly denounced the atrocities committed by government soldiers and separatists in the area.

“Kumbo has had its fair share of suffering,” the bishop said during the Assumption Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus.

“We have seen innocent people brutally killed. A lot of people have lost their homes and property. Violence and all forms of torture and cruelty have become so common that we now consider it normal to kill, torture, extort and ask for ransoms,” he continued. “We continue to hear gruesome stories of people kidnapped or arrested, tortured and asked to pay huge ransoms before they are released.”

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After the kidnapping of the two priests, the diocese issued a statement calling for their immediate and unconditional release. The police are on the search for the abducted priests whose whereabouts are still unknown, although Father Denis Martin Njobam of the Diocese of Kumbo said they were “probably taken to a separatist camp.”

(Separatist leaders have denied taking the two clerics, according to local media.)

Cameroon’s North West and South West regions are English-speaking, while the rest of the country is French-speaking. Separatists in the two regions have been fighting government forces in efforts to establish a separate state called Ambazonia. The fighting broke out in 2016 following peaceful demonstrations by anglophone lawyers and teachers over the use of French in anglophone schools and courts. The government responded with violence, leading to an escalation of the conflict, and the growth of an armed struggle for the independence of anglophone Cameroon.

More than 2,000 people have been killed in the conflict, and more than 400,000 have been forced from their homes.

The Catholic Church in the affected areas has been vocal about speaking out for justice for Anglophone Cameroonians, as well as calling out the human rights abuses of the security forces; at the same time, they have condemned the tactics of the separatists. This has led the clergy to be targeted by both sides, and priests are often kidnapped for ransom by the separatists. The Archbishop Fontem Esua of Bamenda was himself held by rebels for hours after being stopped at a separatist checkpoint.

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The separatists have made a school boycott a cornerstone of their secessionist strategy, with over 80 percent of children forced out of classes. Schools that tried to defy the boycott were burned down and students and teachers kidnapped.

During his Assumption Mass remarks, Nkuo noted there was no guarantee the schools in the two Anglophone regions would open at the beginning of the academic year in September and said this denied the children of their fundamental rights.

“It is a crime against humanity to deny our children the right to go to school in the name of a struggle, no matter how legitimate our case may be,” the bishop said.

He also said that children fleeing Kumbo to seek schooling elsewhere have been “mercilessly exploited.”

“Is it OK, for us, people of Kumbo, for our children to leave Kumbo and pay 250,000 francs [about $500] as day students in Yaoundé or Douala, when with the same amount, you can sponsor five to ten students in Kumbo? I consider this exploitation. This exploitation must stop. And we can make this happen,” Nkuo said.

He also said it was unfortunate that some members of his flock have sided with the separatist strategy of a school boycott, and warned that they will be judged in the long sweep of history “for sacrificing the future of our children for a struggle, when we do have other options that we can use to make our point.”

The bishop appealed to a sense of empathy from both separatists and government soldiers, and called on the people of his diocese to fight evil.

“The dragon, that monstrous sign of evil has entered Kumbo and taken over many Christians; it is the evil dragon of violence, torture, kidnappings, and asking for unreasonable ransoms; it is a crime against humanity and a great exploitation that we use our children’s right to education as a bargain to push forward our political propaganda,” Nkuo said in his sermon.

“History will stand to judge us,” he warned.

He said only an abiding faith in God and the love of Christ can bring peace back to Kumbo, and by extension, to Cameroon’s North West and South West regions.

Until then, Nkuo said that although he is worried about the situation, he isn’t scared.

“I am fully aware that anyone who speaks about these things stands the risk of being kidnapped or being killed. I am not sure that I am safe,” he said.

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