YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – A group of international bishops, including Bishop Thomas Zinkula of Davenport, have called on Cameroon’s President Paul Biya to hold peace talks with English-speaking separatists in the majority French-speaking African country.

The appeal came as the UN human rights office demanded a government investigation into a massacre of 23 civilians in Cameroon’s North West Province.

Cameroon’s Anglophone regions constituting 20 percent of Cameroon’s nearly 25 million people and have been the scene of fighting between the government and fighters of the self-declared state of Ambazonia.

In a February 17 open letter, 16 bishops – working with the Global Campaign for Peace and Justice in Cameroon – called on Biya to hold “urgent peace talks with the country’s English-speaking separatists and moderates.”

Zinkula is the only American who signed the document, but other signatories include Canadians Bishop Bart van Roijen of Corner Brook and Labrador, Bishop Albert Thevenot of Prince Albert, and Archbishop Donald Bolen of Regina; Englishmen Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury and Bishop Terence Drainey of Middlesborough; and Irishmen Bishop Ray Browne of Kerry and Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan of Waterford and Lismore.

“We… write to respectfully urge your government to participate in proposed Swiss-led peace talks aimed at ending the violence in Cameroon’s North West and South West regions,” the bishops wrote.

In July last year, Swiss government said it would broker talks between the two sides, although the Swiss ambassador said the “willingness of the parties” is necessary “in order to build the dialogue.”

In October last year, the Cameroon government organized what it described as “a Major National Dialogue” to propose solutions to the crisis. A major outcome was the granting of a ‘Special Status’ for the historically marginalized Anglophone communities.

In their letter, the bishops said it was a laudable initiative, but “it did not stop the violence.”

“We believe the proposed Swiss-led talks offer the best path to an appropriate political solution through inclusive negotiations. The success of these talks will be critical in Cameroon’s journey towards ensuring peace and your legacy as an effective leader in a troubled region. It is our sincere hope that all interested stakeholders will join these talks and show a spirit of cooperation, pragmatism, and realism to ensure these negotiations succeed. This is what the people of Cameroon, your sons and daughters, God’s children, expect and deserve,” the bishops told the Cameroonian president.

“Violence and atrocities on all sides have forced 656,000 Anglophone Cameroonians from their homes, kept 800,000 children from school (including 400,000 from Catholic schools), caused 50,000 people to flee to Nigeria, destroyed hundreds of villages and resulted in a death toll of at least 2,000. Each of these lives is precious, and we mourn their suffering and wish to prevent more loss of life and innocence,” the letter continued.

The crisis in Cameroon’s North West and South West regions started in 2016 as a protest by Anglophone lawyers and teachers over attempts to destroy the education and common law systems practiced in the English-speaking regions, but quickly degenerated into an armed rebellion with many English speakers demanding for outright independence.

The conflict has killed at least 3000 people, and left over 500,000 others displaced, according to the United Nations.

Catholic institutions have been particularly affected, with clerics being targeted by both sides of the conflict.

“Only true peace will allow Catholic dioceses, clinics, and schools to once again minister safely to the blessed congregants and citizens of Anglophone Cameroon,” the bishops wrote in their letter.

The bishops’ letter came just days after one of the worst killings took place in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions. At least 23 people – mostly women and children – were massacred by security forces in what government officials claim was an “accident” after a firefight with separatists.

On Feb. 18, the UN human rights office called on Cameroon to conduct an “independent, impartial and thorough” investigation, so “those responsible are held fully to account.”

“We call on the Government to ensure that the security forces abide by applicable international law norms standards during the conduct of their operations. We similarly remind armed separatist groups of their responsibilities under international law and call on all parties to refrain from deliberate attacks on civilians,” the UN office said.

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