The focus of the search for the missing Nigerian girls has moved across the Nigerian borders – to Cameroon and Chad, with some reported sightings. As if almost in anticipation of the world’s spotlight falling upon them, and in response to incidents shortly before the girls’ kidnap, locals have been attempting to be pro-active, rather than reactive, to such unsettling events.
Christian and Muslim leaders in Northern Cameroon, fearful that their region may become another area of sectarian violence, have opted for preventive measures.
”We want to say no to what is happening, unfortunately, in neighboring Central African Republic and Nigeria. We want to live here in good relationships between Muslims and Christians. We say no to all those who want to come from outside to disturb our current climate of peace” said Mgr Philip Stevens, Bishop of Maroua-Mokolo, in a telephone interview with World Watch Monitor.
The long standing peaceful cohabitation witnessed by religious communities in Northern Cameroon has been challenged in recent months following the abduction of the girls, and of several Europeans, by an extremist group that is located primarily in Northern Nigeria militants.
On April 4, a Canadian nun and two Italian priests were kidnapped in Tchere, 18 km from the Diocese of Maroua – Mokolo. So far nothing has emerged about their whereabouts. In November 2013, the French priest Georges Vandenbeusch was abducted and then freed at the end of the year. Earlier in February 2013, seven members of a French family, including four children, were kidnapped following a visit to the Waza National Park near Lake Chad. The Moulin-Fournier family was released after two months.
Due to terrorist threats and the risk of kidnapping, Westerners are advised against all travel in the region.
The far-north region of Cameroon is a vast semi-desert area bordered notably by Nigeria, Chad and the Central African Republic. Despite military reinforcement, the region has become a safe haven for Boko Haram, whose violent campaign for the installation of Islamic Law in Nigeria has claimed more than 1500 lives in early 2014 (warning, hyperlinked document contains graphic imagery).
Islamist insurgency and Nigeria’s military crackdown have pushed thousands to seek refuge in Northern Cameroon and elsewhere. The arrival of thousands fleeing the ongoing inter-communities’ violence in the Central African Republic to the south-east has added to the current economic and social pressures in the region.
Such issues were debated by Christian and Muslim leaders as they met in Maraoua on April 23-24. The 40 attendees included Mgr Philipe Stevens, Bishop of Maroua-Mokolo, Rev. Samuel Heteck, President of the Protestant Churches Council in Northern Cameroon and SheikhMahmoud Mal Bakary, the the person who leads prayers in a mosque. of Maroua’s Great a Muslim place of worship.
The conference, entitled “Christians and Muslims together for Peace: Fruit, challenges and prospects of inter-religious dialogue in the Far-North region” pointed up the need to promote a culture of peace and tolerance between members of different religious communities. To make this happen, Christian and Muslim leaders in Northern Cameroon have pledged to set up a center for dialogue which will be equipped with documentation aimed at promoting better understanding of Islam and Christianity. A forum is also scheduled for next August in order to raise awareness of peaceful cohabitation among youth regardless of their religious background.
Training centers, particularly Christian schools, constitute an important framework for promotion of better understanding, notes Mgr Stevens.
”Many Muslim students attend Christian schools. So this will help to create a strong friendship between Christian and Muslim students. That’s the kind of friendship environment we want to develop.”
The choice of the youth as the target group aims also to prevent eventual negative drifts, Mgr Stevens explained.
”Many unemployed people may be tempted to embrace this extremist view [Islamist] which constitutes a real threat to our society. If the young ones have a stable economic future, they will turn away from that violent group [Boko Haram].”
Nevertheless, the Catholic cleric recognizes that economic programs are needed in order to alleviate poverty in the region.
“The promotion of peace is a long process and has a number of challenges” says Bakary Bouba, the traditional leader of Maroua.
”What we have started is a social project. As in all laboratory experiments, there may be some errors, failures and even risks. Let us, therefore, be patient, careful and never rush because it is a long process” he warned.
This view is shared by Rev Samuel Heteck, who called on all religious communities to remain vigilant in order to safeguard peaceful cohabitation among them.