YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Five priests, a nun, and three laypeople who were kidnapped over a month ago in Cameroon have been freed in Nigeria.
They were kidnapped from St. Mary’s Parish in the Nchang village in the restive South West Region in September.
Bishop Aloysius Fondong Abangalo of Mamfe said on Sunday he was absolutely delighted at the news, and attributed their release to the prayers of the Christian community.
“For over one month, we have experienced great pain and sorrow on account of the desecration of the main church of St Mary’s Parish, Nchang and the kidnap of our brothers and sisters,” the prelate said in a statement. “I announce with great joy the release of all nine who were abducted.”
“I am sincerely grateful to all who joined us in the collective effort in praying for the safety and release of our brothers and sisters. Words will only do scant justice in expressing my sentiments of gratitude to all those who collaborated with us in the process of negotiating for their safety and release,” the bishop said.
“While sincerely appreciating you all for the One Family Spirit during these difficult times, I urge each of you to pray a Decade of the Rosary in thanksgiving to God for the safe release of our brothers and sisters who were kidnapped.”
On Sept. 16, gunmen suspected to be separatist fighters attacked the parish compound, took their hostages and burned down the buildings on the premises, including the church.
The nine people kidnapped were Father Elias Okorie; Father Barnabas Ashu; Father Cornelius Jingwa; Father Job Francis Nwobegu: Father Emmanuel Asaba: Sister Jacinta C. Udeagha; catechist Nkem Patrick Osang; Blanche Bright, and Mrs. Kelechukwu.
The Church was told to pay a ransom of $50.000 for the release of the hostages – a request the bishop rejected, saying it would set a dangerous precedent which would lead to more kidnappings for ransom.
Fondong Abangalo didn’t say how the negotiations were conducted, but in an eleven-second video, one of the hostages said no ransom was paid.
“We want to thank the freedom fighters of Ambazonia for releasing us without any ransom paid, and for their hospitality,” the voice said.
Ambazonia is the name the separatists use for the Anglophone regions of Cameroon.
Cameroon is 80 percent French-speaking and 20 percent English-speaking, a result of the country being divided by France and Britain during the colonial era. The two English-speaking North West and South West regions continued to use the British education and common legal systems, but faced marginalization by the Francophone majority for decades.
In 2016, a series of protests by English-speaking teachers and lawyers were violently suppressed by the central government, leading to the present separatist insurgency. So far, over 4,000 people have been killed, and over 700,000 people displaced.
The use of the phrase ‘freedom fighters’ to describe the separatists in the released audio message from the hostage suggests the statement was prepared by the gunmen, and the hostage forced to read it.
It is not known exactly how the hostages were taken to Nigeria, which borders the Anglophone regions of Cameroon.
An official of the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants, and Internally Displaced Persons of Nigeria told Crux that his office was deeply involved in the negotiations. He spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing security concerns.
“Some refugees who knew the kidnappers and their activities acted as informants to the Nigerian government,” the official said.
He added that there was one other person – not a refugee – from Nigeria who was in direct contact with the kidnappers.
“A meeting was held between myself, the refugee, and the third person in my Office in Calabar to strategize on how best to handle the issue and certain resolutions were reached,” adding there were constant contact between the parties until the release of the captives.
In his statement, Fondong Abangalo decried the “act of desecrating the church,” and called for a renewed respect for human dignity.
“Taking away the freedom of our brothers and sisters in order to make money at all costs is inhuman and should be desisted from whoever engages in such,” the bishop said.
“For those who make utterances – categorical or implicit – which fuel such actions, I suppose it is time you rethink your approach, and ensure that the dignity of the human person is upheld in every way possible,” he added.
Both sides are accused of human rights abuses. There have been reports of government soldiers arresting people and only releasing them upon the payment of a bribe. Meanwhile, kidnapping for ransom has become an important way to raise funds for the separatist forces.
The conflict has been particularly hard on the Church, with at least two priests murdered and several Catholic schools and hospitals attacked.