YAOUNDE, Cameroon — Some bishops in Cameroon have urged Anglophone separatists to allow schools to reopen, after militants abducted a bishop and two priests for condemning the school shutdown campaign.

“All children deserve the right to education and a good future wherever they decide to spend their lives,” said members of the Bamenda provincial bishops’ conference.

“Many parents have been consistently deceived about their children’s education, while arguments about a lack of security are used to frighten and prevent them sending (children) to school.”

The three-page open letter was published Aug. 24 after independence fighters in Cameroon’s northwest and southwest regions called for a new school shutdown.

The bishops said separatists had burned schools and killed teachers who had defied past boycott demands and should now “approach the issue of schools with reason more than emotion.”

However, the letter also called on the government to “exercise more vigilance” over military units and ensure they remained “as far from schools as possible.”

“Schools are not barracks, and (soldiers) should not enter them unless invited by competent authorities,” the bishops said.

“Every state has a right to employ its military to protect citizens and defend its territorial integrity. However, it is also known that some military have used exaggerated force against innocent civilians and sometimes committed horrendous crimes against children,” they said.

The letter was published as Bishop George Nkuo of Kumbo was freed by abductors Aug. 24, five days after two of his priests were released by separatists.

Journal du Cameroun said all three had been detained in apparent retaliation for an Aug. 15 homily by Nkuo, who condemned the school closures as a “crime against humanity and a great exploitation.” He called on Catholics to resist “the evil dragon of violence, torture and kidnappings.”

Separatist leader Mark Bareta denied the bishop had been kidnapped and told the same newspaper Aug. 26 his fighters were “civilians and Christians,” and had sought “a conversation with their bishop.”

At least 2,000 people have been killed and 400,000 displaced during three years of army deployment in the Anglophone regions, where separatists declared an independent state, “Ambazonia,” in October 2017 after protesting the encroachment of French-language controls.

Church leaders and human rights groups have condemned atrocities by both sides in the territories.

Other senior Catholic clergy have also been abducted, including Archbishop Cornelius Esua of Bamenda, who was detained briefly in June after attempting to pass a separatist roadblock.

In an Aug. 27 statement, UNICEF estimated 4,400 schools had been closed and 74 burned, leaving more than 600,000 children without education in northwest and southwest Cameroon. Journal du Cameroun said a “mass exodus” was now underway to avoid the separatist shutdown.

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