YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Cameroon’s Catholic Church has been taken to court, accused of “profanation of sacred land” by a group of traditional tribal elders in the country.

The dispute is over a large mass of rock called the Ngog-Lituba – which roughly translates as the perforated stone – and spans over six square miles.

The stone mass has a huge opening at the side that leads into a huge cave. Local tradition says that humanity originated from the bowels of that rock.

A legend says that during wars of migration and settlement, it was this cave that housed the ancestors of the local tribes and kept them out of harm’s way.

In the traditional religion of the indigenous tribes – the Elog-Mpo’o, Bassa and Bati peoples – it is considered a sacred place, and the gods of the cave, along with the people’s ancestors, still protect and watch over the land.

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In 1957, Bishop Thomas Mongo planted a huge cross in the stone, along with a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and declared the site a place of Catholic pilgrimage.

Mongo was the Bishop of Douala, nearly 200 miles away from Ngog-Lituba.

The cross on Ngog-Lituba. (Credit: Youtube.)

Mongo’s actions were part of the peace process leading to Cameroon’s independence from France in 1960. The bishop set up terms between the French government and the local rebels to end hostilities and enter negotiations. These initial efforts failed, and the fighting continued. The pilgrimage was established to give spiritual aid to the efforts to end the violence.

“Without the resources to stop the killings in this region of the Sanaga Maritime, Bishop Thomas Mongo opted for a spiritual response, namely, prayers,” said Archbishop Simon-Victor Tonyé Bakot, the emeritus archbishop of the capital, Yaoundé.

Bakot is a member of the Bassa people, and originally from the Diocese of Douala, and had previously served as Bishop of Edéa, both dioceses which participated in the pilgrimage.

“He thought that the best solution was to invite the Bati, the Bassa, and the Mpo’o to this mythical place, for prayers, for reconciliation, for peace…to silence the guns,” Bakot told Crux.

However, the traditional elders of the animist religions – the elders are known as Bambombog – never accepted the cross and Marian statue, seeing them as symbols of a potential take-over of their place of worship by the Catholic Church.

In 2006, the elders petitioned the United Nations to remove the Catholic shrine.

The petition that called for “denouncing, condemning and putting an end to the profanation of our sacred land, carried out by Christian religions, with specific reference to the Roman Catholic Church of Cameroon,” was signed by the spokesperson of the Bassa people, Samuel Brice Tchomb.

The petition also appealed to the UN to ensure that the indigenous people get the right “to freely exercise and enjoy the spiritual and cultural benefits of our sacred mountain.”

In response, the Catholic Church stopped organizing pilgrimages to the area.

This stalemate ended in 2016, when the Bambombog decided to remove both the statue and the cross from the top of the mountain.

In response, Bishop Jean Bosco Ntep, the current head of the Diocese of Edea, led what the locals described as an “army of pilgrims” to replace the cross on Ngog-Lituba.

The Bambombog took this as a sign of ultimate provocation and swore to fight back, and have taken Ntep to court.

“Our fight to keep our ancestral shrine will be methodical, continuous and sustainable,” said Bassa traditional leader, Simon Mbog Bassong.

He said Ngog-Lituba is the only hope for the survival of their culture.

“We will fight physically, spiritually, and even mystically against the Church,” he told Crux.

They have also called for the recognition of the area by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site “to definitively put an end to the monopoly of the Catholic Church.”

Ntep doesn’t see any reason for a conflict with the traditional religious elders.

“I have tried to meet the Bambombog without success,” the bishop said.

He acknowledged the tribal elders had sent letters to Pope Francis and the President of Cameroon, but refused to discuss their contents.

“The Church is not laying claim to Ngog-Lituba in terms of appropriating it – the Church simply is saying: We are going on pilgrimage and we are going to pray at Ngog-Lituba,” Ntep said. “I want to have dialogue with the Bambombog and the population so that we can find a way of cohabiting, and not of exclusion.”

He said the Church’s attachment to the “mythical mountain” is simply a matter of tradition handed down from the time the first pilgrimage to the mountain was organized in 1959.

“It’s like putting up a church building somewhere. Once it is constructed, it remains a Church house that should be used to worship God,” the bishop said.