Cameroonian authorities have accused armed separatists of abducting five Catholic priests, a nun, and two worshippers from a church on its western border with Nigeria. The Catholic Church in Cameroon says the gunmen torched the church, in the town of Nchang, Friday, before fleeing toward the Nigerian border.

Roman Catholic Church officials in Cameroon say fewer than 10 of the at least 200 Christians expected at Saint Mary’s Church in Nchang village attended their traditional church service Sunday after bishops reported a separatist abduction there.

Nchang is a western village on Cameroon’s border with Nigeria.

Cameroonian bishops say more than 30 gunmen stormed the church Friday evening, shooting indiscriminately in the air before setting the church building on fire. The bishops say five priests, a nun and two Christians were abducted and taken on motorcycles to the bush on the border with Nigeria.

Aloysious Fondong Abangalo, bishop of the Diocese of Mamfe. where Nchang is located, visited Saint Mary’s Church Sunday. He says a separatist attack Friday scared Christians away from attending the service.

Abangalo said he was surprised that some of the fighters who attacked Saint Mary’s Church are former members of the church.

“They are our brothers and sisters who did this thing. Some of them are Catholic Christians. It is an abomination. You burn the church with Jesus inside, you are telling God we do not want you in our land. This is a terrible thing. We all have to pray to beg God’s mercy.”

Abangalo spoke on local media including Equinox TV and Satellite FM Radio.

Reverend Father Humphrey Tatah Mbui is director of communications at the National Episcopal Conference of Cameroon’s Catholic Bishops. He says it is unfortunate for fighters to abduct Catholic clergy and committed Christians, whose mission is to preach peace and make the world a better place to live in.

“They carried them off, saying that the church has not been respecting gunmen. We all know that the Catholic Church in particular has always been for justice and peace. The church is neutral. No one has a right to target men and women of God. That is why the bishops wrote a letter to all the Christians, decrying these kidnappings and asking the Christians to pray for them [abducted clergy].”

The Catholic Church, in the letter released Sunday, condemned the attack and said since the separatist crisis broke out in Cameroon in 2016, clergy have been soft targets of kidnappers, torturers and gunmen.

The church says church buildings and schools and hospitals owned by churches are regularly attacked by armed men. Cameroonian bishops say the Roman Catholic Church and all other churches in the central African state reject violence as a solution to the crisis.

They call on the gunmen to release the abducted people and stop killing people.

Cameroon’s military says the clergy and Christians were abducted by separatists but does not give possible reasons for the abduction. The government says the military has been deployed to rescue the abducted people.

Capo Daniel is deputy defense chief of the Ambazonia Defense Forces, one of the main separatist groups in Cameroon’s English-speaking western regions. Daniel says splinter separatist groups attacked the clergy in Nchang village.

“We are sending a warning to all the splinter Ambazonia forces that there is no justification for attacks against religious institutions that are the backbone of Ambazonia communal life. Whatever differences we have with some of the leadership of the Catholic church, the church is sacrosanct and cannot be torched in this manner. Our fight is against the Cameroon state and its institutions and not against the church.”

Daniel said some splinter separatist groups are attacking everyone they suspect of collaborating with Cameroon’s central government in Yaounde. He said the splinter groups do not want schools the fighters consider instruments of manipulation and assimilation of English speakers by the French-speaking majority to open in western Cameroon. The Roman Catholic Church has opposed closure of schools by fighters.

The U.N. says that Cameroon’s separatist crisis that degenerated into an armed conflict in 2017 has left more than 3,300 people dead and 750,000 internally displaced or having fled to neighboring Nigeria.

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