YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – A priest kidnapped by separatists in Cameroon’s troubled South West Region has been freed.

Monsignor Julius Agbortoko Agbor has been freed, the Vicar General of the Diocese of Mamfe, was let go late on Aug. 31 after being held captive for two days.

“We thank the Most High who kept Monsignor Julius Agbortoko Agbor safe during his imprisonment and brought him back to us safe and sound,” said a statement signed by Father Sebastine Sinju, chancellor of the Diocese of Mamfe.

He thanked the Christian communities and “all those who at home and abroad were at our side while they were united in prayer … God bless you.”

In a telephone call with Crux, the Director of Communication for the Mamfe Diocese, Father Christopher Eboka, said no ransom was paid to secure the release of the priest.

The kidnappers had been asking for around $36,000.

“The boys who took him brought him back home, and there were no conditions,” the priest told Crux.

“The boys who took him were dissidents. Seemingly in the course of our struggle to get him out, news had gone to the boys at the camp, and they got worried that these dissidents had given them a bad name. So they came out, fired some gunshots and said they were giving the kidnappers two days to release the priest, and by the special grace of God, they brought him right back home in the night. They were asking for CFA 20 million ($36,000). Not even drinking water was given,” Eboka said.

A vicar general is the second highest ranking official in a diocese, after the bishop.

Eboka said the kidnappers didn’t come for the vicar general.

“They came for the bishop. It was about 6pm, shortly after the vicar general had returned from his pastoral visit. I think he was in the bath. Some young men who said they were ‘amba’ [the common appellation for separatists] fighters stormed the major seminary compound and went straight into the residence of Bishop Emeritus Francis Teke Lysinge. The bishop’s personal assistant started arguing against their taking Lysinge. It was at that time that Monsignor Agbortoko came out of the bath. When they saw him, they said he would make an even better catch, since the 82-year-old Lysinge looked really frail,” Eboko said.

The priest said he had been in constant communication with the kidnappers, who call him using the vicar general’s telephone number.

He said the kidnappers said they wanted to use the ransom to buy at least ten guns with which to fight government forces.

“They say it’s time the Church started supporting the fight,” Eboka told Crux.

“I have told them the Church can’t give out money for the purchase of weapons. We can’t sanction the killing of human beings. It’s against God’s Law,” he said, and emphasized that the Church doesn’t pay ransoms.

“If we pay a ransom, then they will come the next day and kidnap another priest, for more ransom to be paid,” he explained.

Eboka was himself kidnapped May 21 and only released ten days later. He said it was a nightmare, staying in the bush with people “who could just snuff the life out of you.”

“They made sure I was well-fed though,” he told Crux. “I guess they figured out that if they didn’t treat me well, their hope of getting a ransom would be dashed. In any case, the Church paid no ransom to secure my release.”

Church leaders have become prized targets for attacks ever since the separatist war started in Cameroon five years ago, after the English-speaking minority – concentrated in the country’s North West and South West regions – protested what they saw as abuses by the French-speaking majority.

On July 4, 2020, the emeritus Archbishop of Bamenda, Cornelius Fontem Esua, was taken by gunmen near the village of Belo-Njikwe in the northwest region.

On November 5, 2020, the emeritus Archbishop of Douala, the late Cardinal Christian Tumi, was kidnapped by gunmen and released the next day.

On June 4, Father Sylvester Ngarba Nsah of St. Theresia of the Child Jesus Pastoral zone, in a town called Vekovi, was arrested by the military on accusations that he was “collaborating” with separatist fighters. The the same priest had been kidnapped twice by separatists for daring to open Catholic schools, in violation of a school boycott enforced by the rebels.

On Oct. 12, 2020, Jesuit Father Ludovic Lado was briefly detained as he set out on a pilgrimage for peace in Cameroon.

Some church figures have even paid the ultimate price.

Father Cosmos Omboto Ondari, a Mill Hill missionary from Kenya, was killed in 2018 in Kembong village, in South West Cameroon. Father Alexandre Sob Nougi, pastor of the parish of the Sacred Heart in Bomaka, was killed on July 20, 2018. Also in 2018, U.S. missionary Charles Wesco, a Baptist, was killed in the country’s North West region.

In an Aug. 30 statement, Sinju condemned the attacks on Church personnel.

“Could the stakeholders of the ongoing armed conflict kindly hands off the Church, for God’s sake,” the priest pleaded.

But Eboka says he knows why the Church has become a target.

“The Church is being attacked because the Church has remained the Church,” the priest told Crux. “We stand for truth and for justice.”

Eboka added the only sustainable solution to the war is an “inclusive dialogue” that should tackle the root causes of the conflict.