Boko Haram’s terrorism moving into towns
People in northern Cameroon are living in fear following suicide attacks in the town of Maroua which claimed over 30 lives this past July. Sunday Mass celebrations now require major security measures as a sense of normality is slowly re-establishes. Bishop Bruno Ateba remains hopeful however, as he places great confidence in prayer – and in dialogue between Christians and Muslims.
For millions of Catholics in Canada it is something we take for granted – but for Bishop Bruno Ateba of the diocese of Maroua-Mokolo it is the subject of his heartfelt prayer – the simple matter of celebrating Sunday Mass in a fitting church building, without fear of terrorist attacks.
While visiting the international headquarters of the Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the 50-year-old bishop explained how he currently celebrates Holy Mass on Sundays along with around 3,000 of the faithful, out in the open air – come rain shine. On each one of these occasions, the people form a human chain right around the congregation, and everybody who wants to attend Holy Mass has to first of all go through strict security controls. But despite the fear of terrorism, the Catholic faithful in Maroua still retain their sense of joyfulness. “We like to sing and dance during Holy Mass,” says Bishop Bruno. This joyful outlook is always present “For the Lord is our refuge,” he adds.
The suicide bombings in July were terrible. Over 30 people were killed in Maroua on that day and hundreds were injured. The horror was made worse by the fact that it appears as though it was young girls who were forced by Boko Haram to hide bombs under their burkas and to blow themselves up. “We feel as though it is Good Friday,” says Bishop Ateba. “Yet we are not giving up hope.”
Cameroon is sandwiched between two of the major crisis regions in Central and Western Africa, namely Nigeria and the Central African Republic. Nigeria, where the Boko Haram terrorist group has carried out many terrible atrocities, is only a little over 40 miles (60 km) from the provincial capital and seat of the diocese, Maroua. Bishop Bruno reports that the people in the frontier region and in the provincial capital are traumatized, living in fear of further terrorist attacks. Just a few days ago, on September 3, Boko Haram struck again in the north, when two women blew themselves up in a crowded market place and causing a bloodbath.
Refugees within their own country
According to Bishop Bruno, there are more than a hundred thousand people in the area who have been driven from their homes. Around 52,600 people, above all refugees from the crisis in Nigeria, are living in the Minawao refugee camp, around 25 miles (40 km) from Maroua. In addition to this there are over 50,000 Cameroonians who have been made refugees within their own country, for fear of Boko Haram. Many of them have taken refuge with relatives, or in public buildings. Bishop Bruno has withdrawn the foreign missionaries from the frontier region. “Life is too dangerous there for people with white skin,” he told ACN in explanation of his decision. Northern Cameroon is heavily dependent on tourism; but the tourists are no longer coming this year, since Boko Haram began to terrorize the region. “We’ve been brought to a standstill,” says the bishop, summarizing the feelings of the people here who depend on tourism.
For the time being, thanks to a strong presence of the army and police, it has been possible to maintain a certain degree of normalcy, but far from any real sense of peace. Bishop Bruno is appealing to the world, “Help us to achieve peace. Without peace we can do nothing. The international community has all the resources to put an end to the terrorism of Boko Haram.”
In a letter sent in mid-August to all the faithful of his diocese, Bishop Bruno calls on the faithful to pray and to be watchful. “It is important for our own security that we work together with the state authorities. Anybody who comes across individuals who appear unfamiliar to him needs to be on his guard. If their behaviour is in any way suspicious, the police should immediately be informed about them.” This is particularly the case along the border between the two countries, since in many places this border is not clearly marked. The houses of the Kanuri tribe are often built right on the border. “One room is in Nigeria, another is in Cameroon,” the bishop explains.
It is so easy for terrorists to enter the country. How can the terrorism of Boko Haram be stopped? For Bishop Bruno the answer is clear: the most important thing is prayer. And the next most important thing is dialogue between Christians and Muslims. The Catholic Church has a good reputation in Cameroon, where 70% of its population of 20 million people are Christian. As Bishop Ateba explains, many Muslims come to the Catholic health centres when they are ill, and send their children to the Catholic schools. The bishop has written a prayer for peace, which is read in all the Masses in his diocese before the final blessing is given.
ACN supports projects in Cameroon
During the year 2014 ACN helped with over 1.6 million dollars to support pastoral work by the Church in Cameroon, and for this Bishop Bruno is very grateful. For many years the charity has also been helping for the training of seminarians and priests from the diocese of Maroua-Mokolo. And thanks to the generosity of its benefactors, ACN has also helped to build a multi-purpose hall close to the refugee camp in Minawao, where the Catholic refugees from the camp can gather for prayer and attend Holy Mass. Another important project with which ACN is helping, and one dear to the heart of Bishop Bruno, is for the construction of a Catholic cathedral in Maroua. In fact the foundations are already laid, now it is a matter of building the walls.