Cameroon Says “No!” to Freedom of Worship
WOMEN were seized and beaten. One was assaulted so badly her breath failed five times. Some of those mistreated were sick and may not survive.
Men were beaten mercilessly until unconscious. One was given twenty strokes, then another hundred, then beaten a third time.
Hundreds were arrested on false charges. Some were kept more than a week in jail cells without toilets. Twelve were held in a cell only a little over 6 x 7 x 10 feet—with just sixteen little holes to let air in. Some were given no food, or medical attention for wounds, for days.
These, and many similar cases have resulted from official government policy. Where? Is this brutality describing conditions in Nazi concentration camps? Were the victims vicious criminals?
No, what you are to read is a description of what has taken place recently in the African country of Cameroon. And the victims of this awful savagery? They were not criminals—no murderers, rioters, thieves or revolutionaries. Instead, they were the most peaceful and honest citizens in the country!
All of this reached a high point described in bold headlines on the front page of La Presse du Cameroun of May 14, 1970: “By Presidential decree signed yesterday, the ASSOCIATION OF JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES BANNED IN CAMEROON.”
The newspaper continued: “By decree of the Head of State signed yesterday, the group known as Jehovah’s witnesses is officially dissolved. . . . The exercising of activities of this association is banned in the entire territory of the Federal Republic of Cameroon.”
Why did the Cameroon government take such drastic action against a religious organization known world wide for its peaceful and orderly conduct? Because the Witnesses are neutral as to political affairs and do not participate in them they were accused of being in opposition to the government.
THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS
The president of the Federal Republic of Cameroon is a Moslem whose name is El Hadj Ahmadou Ahidjo. On March 28, 1970, he was elected to his third consecutive five-year term of office, obtaining 97.65 percent of the popular vote. Press comments were unanimous in declaring that the election was a great success and that those voting did so “conscientiously and in total freedom.”
But was there really freedom in Cameroon? Not for everyone. Great pressure was put on Jehovah’s witnesses by some of the members of the ruling political party, the C.N.U.—Cameroon National Union. The Witnesses’ nonparticipation in political affairs caused resentment on the part of overzealous party members who made these Christians their special target in election campaign speeches.
For example, on March 20, a violent public attack was made against the Witnesses at “La Place de l’Indépendance” in Akonolinga by André Fouda, a senior member of the legislative assembly and an outspoken critic of Jehovah’s witnesses. A Witness who heard the entire speech quotes Mr. Fouda as saying: “If there are any ‘Maka’ (a former cannibalistic tribe) in Akonolinga, they are free to eat Jehovah’s witnesses.”
PRESSURE PUT ON THE WITNESSES
Many were the pressures that the Witnesses were subjected to in an effort to influence them at election time. The following report is from a Witness in Akonolinga:
“The Prefect, Mr. Louis Mandeng, ordered all of Jehovah’s witnesses to report to his office at 7 a.m. on March 28, election day. The Witnesses obeyed. The siren sounded, signaling the opening of the voting booths. Mr. Mandeng took the lead in his car, holding all the identity papers of the Witnesses and signaling the Witnesses to follow him to the voting booths situated some 100 meters away. When the Prefect’s purpose of forcing them to vote became evident, the Witnesses no longer followed his car but left for their homes.”
That same evening and the next day several Witnesses were arrested. The congregation’s presiding minister writes: “At nine o’clock that evening I was arrested by the Brigade Commander and slept naked that night on the cement floor of the security cell.” The presiding minister was kept in prison until April 22.
Another Witness in Akonolinga writes: “On March 23, Mr. Nicolas Voundi, the Deputy for Nyoung and Mfoumou, came to the Prefect in my presence and told him that he had told my employer not to keep another Witness and me on at the workshop. On March 25, when Mr. Mandeng returned from Yaoundé, he ordered both of us to come to his office every day, morning and afternoon.
“‘Now it is serious,’ he said. ‘I must have an answer by tomorrow at the latest. Are you or are you not going to vote? I am asking you, are you going to vote or not?’
“He struck the table with his right hand. Four times he asked me if I would vote. I remained silent. He phoned the Gendarmerie [military police] to come and get us. From the 17th to the 28th of March, the Prefect pressured us to vote. But as soon as the elections were finished on March 28, at 6 p.m., we were no longer accused of not voting. The Prefect then began accusing us of preaching against voting, that is, ‘preaching abstention.’ I spent the night with eleven other Witnesses in a cell 2.5 meters (7 1⁄2 feet) long by 2 meters (6 1⁄2 feet) wide and 3 meters (10 feet) high, with 16 little holes to let air pass.”
BRUTAL TACTICS USED
A traveling representative of Jehovah’s witnesses tells this account of his experiences: “On the evening of March 26, at 9:30 p.m., I heard a loud knock at my door. When I asked who it was, the answer came: ‘It is the Brigade Commander’ (Mr. Onguene). I opened the door and he asked me: ‘What are you doing here? . . . Let me see your identity papers.’ All my papers were in order. ‘Where is your elector’s card?’ ‘I do not have one.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because none has yet been given me.’
“He told me to follow him to the Gendarmerie, where he ordered me to remove all my clothes except my shorts. In the cell where I slept were eight Witnesses from the congregation at Akom. The next morning I was designated, along with another Witness, to wash the commander’s car while all the others were assigned to make fences for his field of peanuts.
“On March 27, at 10:30 p.m., I was awakened by the same commander, who said: ‘Tell me if you are going to vote tomorrow because severe punishment awaits all those who do not go to vote.’ I no sooner answered than I was locked up again in the same cell. Taking all his gendarmes, he began to round up the Witnesses in their living quarters; a total of forty-five were finally arrested.
“On March 28, election day, the Witnesses had been singing in their cell. When Commander Onguene heard that we were singing in the cell at the Gendarmerie, he brought all his gendarmes and the most wicked soldier I had ever seen, who was nicknamed ‘Smasher.’ By order of the Commander, this soldier began beating us mercilessly. We were all naked except for our shorts. A blow struck me on the back of the neck and I fell unconscious for a few moments. More blows awakened me as he continued to strike. Our backs are really all marked by the blows from the stick.
“After beating us and wounding us in this manner, they would not allow us to go to the hospital. We were even deprived of water to wash ourselves, for eight days. We were given no food for two days. Following this, we were made to cut grass and clean the town. After three and a half weeks, we were put in a truck and sent to the Prefect of Dja and Lobo. En route it rained heavily and it became cold. One of the Christian sisters among us was eight months pregnant. On Sunday, April 19, the Prefect called us into his conference room and later released us.”
Some of the worst treatment meted out to Jehovah’s witnesses was in the town of Sangmélima, where eventually ninety-two Witnesses were arrested and jailed. One of the arrested Witnesses reports: “It was precisely on March 23, five days before the Presidential elections on the 28th, that two Witnesses from Messock Congregation were brought to the B.M.M. (Mixed Mobile Brigade, the most feared of police in Cameroon) at Sangmélima, accused of having organized a meeting to ‘preach abstention.’ One Witness was released because of his age, but the special pioneer F . . . was held at the B.M.M.
“The day following the elections a terrible campaign was organized to arrest all of Jehovah’s witnesses. Every day, lists of Witnesses were sent to the B.M.M. and the Witnesses, men and women, filled the five cells of the B.M.M. in Sangmélima.
“In Djoum, some Witnesses were dragged naked on the cement floor after having been beaten to the point of drawing blood. They were forced to urinate and eliminate in their cells (no toilets in the cells) for eight days before being loaded onto a truck to be transferred to Sangmélima. More than forty-five Witnesses, some with children, not to mention elderly ones hardly able to walk, were transferred. Their condition was so bad that even the authorities at the Prefecture here took pity on them and released them the following day. These Witnesses found over eighty of their Christian brothers and sisters already in jail from Sangmélima, Bengbis and Zoetélé.
“The five cells of the B.M.M. at Sangmélima were crammed full of Witnesses who were being interrogated one at a time, up to April 21. At that date, all of them were brought into the large conference hall at the Prefecture to hear a talk by the Prefect, Mr. Biscène. He warned us all to vote on June 7, otherwise we would all be arrested again.”
A special full-time minister of the Witnesses reports what happened immediately following the elections in Bertoua, where over thirty Witnesses were arrested: “All day long on Thursday, April 2, certain ones were taken one by one to the police for questioning. Early in the morning our interrogation began by the brigade commander. Realizing that he could not dictate his ideas to the first of our Christian brothers, he called the Assistant Lieutenant of the Commander of the Bertoua Company. This man, acting in a most beastly manner, ordered a gendarme to beat the Witnesses cruelly during the questioning. Most hurt were a young Witness from Belabo who is only 19 years of age (too young to vote) and another who is from Diang. In all the questions asked us, their aim was to get us to accuse the Society or one of its representatives of teaching us not to vote.
“After a whole day of such treatment we were shut up in a cell where, by order of the Lieutenant, we were to spend two days and two nights without food or water. During the night the two young men I mentioned suffered so much that they were incapable of moving.
“On Sunday, April 5, all the Witnesses from Bertoua were released. During the thirteen days that we spent at the Gendarmerie we were not fed with the exception of two small meals that the captain sent us. What is causing us to rejoice is that all are determined to endure.”
EVENTS LEADING TO BAN
Following the elections and all the cruel pressure, many efforts were made by the Witnesses to talk with government officials and to explain their Bible-based stand. These were unsuccessful.
In view of the seriousness of the situation, on April 13, three prominent members of the legal association of Jehovah’s witnesses in Douala wrote directly to President El Hadj Ahmadou Ahidjo, respectfully requesting him to use the power of his high office to stop the persecution of Jehovah’s witnesses. The Witnesses offered to send a delegation to Yaoundé, the capital, to meet with the President to present their case and provide explanations of their work and purpose.
By April 21, most of the arrested Christians were released, much to the joy of the Witnesses. However, a few days later, more arrests were carried out, though fewer in number. An uneasy calm reigned until May 13.
Then, like a bolt of lightning, news flashed throughout the country that Jehovah’s witnesses were completely banned in Cameroon. The day following this radio announcement, police arrived at the newly built Watch Tower Society’s branch headquarters in Douala. They sealed off the rooms that contained office equipment, stored literature and meeting facilities for the Witnesses.
Early Friday morning, May 15, the branch supervisor left Douala for Yaoundé to present a letter of appeal to the President and to request an audience with him. Unknown to the branch representative, an order had just been signed by the head of national security requiring all missionaries of Jehovah’s witnesses to leave the country by May 20. Returning to Douala on Saturday, May 16, the representative found the branch building guarded by two armed policemen. All members of the working staff were held under house arrest until Sunday evening, May 17. No one was allowed to leave or to enter the building. For the most part, however, the missionaries were treated by the police with kindness and respect.
During all this time, however, never once did the Witnesses receive acknowledgment of their letters to government officials. These Christians received nothing in writing. The whole thing took place in secrecy without the slightest opportunity for representatives to speak on their behalf.
On May 20, six missionaries, five Canadians and one Nigerian, were expelled from the country. By then over 335 arrests of Jehovah’s witnesses had been reported to the branch headquarters.
LEGISLATIVE ELECTIONS AND MORE CRUELTY
Arrests and beatings were not limited to the Presidential elections on March 28. The June 7 legislative elections were another opportunity to attack Jehovah’s witnesses, and more arrests took place. A Witness reports from Manjo:
“On Saturday, June 6, the Sub-Prefect, Mr. Moussa Mbello, started off the campaign of arrests. One Witness was arrested the day before the elections. Women seventy-five years of age were taken to the Gendarmerie and rough-handled. Some of these were sick, and we do not know if they will survive.
“What is surprising is to see the Sub-Prefect going from house to house searching even plantations of the Witnesses to arrest them. This searching has been going on day and night. Those taking the lead in this attack are Mr. Moussa Mbello, the Sub-Prefect, and Mr. Pascal Wansi, President of the sub-section of the C.N.U.”
At Namba, immediately following the legislative elections on June 7, one woman Witness was so badly beaten that her breath failed her five times. Another fainted three times. One male Witness was beaten twenty strokes and then given a further one hundred strokes at the entrance of the Kingdom Hall. Later he was beaten a third time.
In many other towns and villages, the Witnesses were at times threatened, at times beaten and imprisoned. The same pattern of persecution was repeated at Abong Mbang, Ayos, Belabo, Diang, Bengbis, Bipindi, Dizangué, Kobdombo, Minta, Ndoum, Songmbengué, Zoetélé and countless other places in the country. Over four hundred arrests were recorded in the few weeks before and after the double elections.
Why this shameful treatment of Jehovah’s witnesses?
WHY THE BAN?
Three weeks after the legislative elections, President Ahidjo inaugurated the new party headquarters in Douala. Referring to the ban on Jehovah’s witnesses, he declared:
“It is justified by the fact that this sect has been used as a cover for a subversive movement directed from abroad and which aimed, by means of an organized campaign of defamation and denigration, at undermining the institutions adopted freely by the people of Cameroon. Such a movement is inadmissible in a country that suffered so much from subversion at the dawn of its independence.”—La Presse du Cameroun, June 26, 1970.
But how true are such charges? Jehovah’s witnesses are known throughout the whole world as being absolutely neutral as to politics. They are also known as sincere, honest, law-abiding citizens. Consider their activity in Cameroon, for example.
For many years the Witnesses have been bringing the good news of God’s heavenly kingdom to the hospitable inhabitants of Cameroon. In 1962, a legal organization was formed and a branch office was opened in Douala to care for the expanding organization. During the eight years that followed, the good news of God’s kingdom was carried by over 12,000 Witnesses into almost every town and village in the country. People throughout the land have had opportunity to observe that the Witnesses stick to preaching God’s kingdom and do not meddle in politics and therefore could never be subversive.
Who, then, is responsible for Cameroon’s saying “No” to freedom of worship? The president of the country certainly bears much responsibility in this regard, as well as other officials. But not only political men bear responsibility. What of the clergy of other religions in Cameroon? Well, what do you think after reading comments such as that printed in La Presse of May 15, 1970, under the heading: “Why are they banned?” The writer remarked: “Obviously, this encroaching proselytism [of the Witnesses] does not please many people, much less other Christian religions whose parishioners are led astray by ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses.’”
But what does the law of Cameroon say?
THE LAW OF CAMEROON
Cameroon law does not require active participation in voting, though this was demanded of Jehovah’s witnesses. Electoral law No. 69 LF, however, does prohibit causing anyone “to abstain from voting.” And when the Witnesses did not participate at the polls, they were often accused of “preaching abstention.” But no Witness was formally charged under that law. In fact, no case was tried in court either before or immediately after the elections.
What Jehovah’s witnesses preach is, not politics, but God’s Word the Bible, and they have been doing this in Cameroon for more than twenty-five years. During the elections, the Witnesses did not campaign from door to door or anywhere else telling people not to vote. The Witnesses did not share in protest demonstrations against any political party or candidate. Jehovah’s witnesses do not preach for or against any election candidate. They do not interfere in such matters in Cameroon or anywhere else.
Why, then, do Jehovah’s witnesses themselves not vote? Because they look to God’s kingdom through Christ as the only hope of mankind. And, as Jesus Christ said to his Heavenly Father concerning his followers, “they are no part of the world, just as I am no part of the world.” (John 17:14; Jas. 4:4) The Witnesses sincerely try to follow Jesus’ example and his counsel to be “no part of the world.” Winning the approval of God and of Jesus Christ is more important to them than anything else. Yet, while they hold such views for themselves, the Witnesses also believe it would be wrong for them to hinder others from voting or to interfere with their efforts to do so. In fact, the Witnesses readily acknowledge that others are free to vote if they so desire.
The Witnesses have not acted out of harmony with the Cameroon Constitution. The well-written Constitution of Cameroon states in its first article:
“The Federal Republic of Cameroon is democratic, secular and social. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law. It affirms its adherence to the fundamental freedoms set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Charter of the United Nations.”
It is evident that provision is made under the law for the protection of all citizens in Cameroon. Freedom of religion and freedom of association are firmly guaranteed in law. Yet, in effect, Cameroon has said “No!” to freedom of worship.
WITNESSES NO DANGER TO GOVERNMENTS
No government has anything to fear from Jehovah’s witnesses. Their neutrality as to politics in Cameroon does not mean that they are agents of some other government of men. The Witnesses refrain from participation in political affairs in all countries of the world, whether in America, Europe, Africa or anywhere else. Hence they are not a “subversive movement directed from abroad.”
Other governments, having wrongly been influenced to ban Jehovah’s witnesses, later acknowledged this and restored the Witnesses’ legal status. For example, in 1941 the Witnesses were banned in Australia. Later the case was heard before Mr. Justice Starke of the High Court there. After listening to argument he determined that the entire Court should consider the matter. Upon a consideration of the issues in the case, the High Court ruled, on June 14, 1943, that Jehovah’s witnesses were not engaged in any subversive enterprise and hence were no danger to the State.* In lifting the ban on the Witnesses, the Court, through Mr. Justice Williams, spoke of the “perfectly innocent principles and doctrines” advocated by the Witnesses and added:
“As the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses is a Christian religion, the declaration that the association is an unlawful body has the effect of making the advocacy of the principles and doctrines of the Christian religion unlawful and every church service held by believers in the birth of Christ an unlawful assembly.”
The ban on Jehovah’s witnesses in Cameroon has the same effect in that land.
Furthermore, the Witnesses have not engaged in any “campaign of defamation” against the government, as has been charged. In fact, their most widely distributed Bible textbook, now being printed to the number of 30 million copies and in 60 languages, specifically teaches that it is wrong to do that. On page 158, this book, The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life, says regarding human governments: “If God permits them to rule, why should any Christian interfere with their doing so? . . . It is a good thing to show proper respect for the government.” Surely it is not against the interests of any government for Jehovah’s witnesses to teach this.
Thus the facts show that the ban on the Witnesses in Cameroon and the reasons cited for it are without valid foundation.
A LOSS TO CAMEROON
The ban on the Witnesses in Cameroon brings no benefit to the people or rulers of the country. But there is much loss to Cameroon. There is loss of reputation throughout the world by its saying “No” to freedom of worship.
There is loss of dignity to political rulers who use cruelty and brutality to force Christians to violate their Bible-trained consciences.
There is much loss of spiritual comfort and education for the people, for the Witnesses have brought these very things, also having had a share in teaching Cameroonians to read and write.
The action of banning the Witnesses has deprived honest-hearted people of Cameroon of opportunities for fruitful Bible discussions. J. P. Bayemi comments on this loss in L’Effort Camerounais of June 14, 1970:
“Let us acknowledge to their credit, at least this, that they have succeeded in their own way of taking away the monopoly that subjects concerning money, women, men or drinks had carved for themselves into conversations in the homes, neighborhoods and public places and transport, before the authorization of Jehovah’s witnesses. Ah yes! there was a time when it was extremely rare to overhear Christians discussing a Bible subject.”
Nothing can uplift the morals of a country more than the principles of God’s Word the Bible. The Witnesses put forth much effort toward the moral and spiritual development of all those who desire to have a greater knowledge of the Bible. What a loss to Cameroon now that these high moral standards cannot be freely taught by Jehovah’s witnesses!
YOU CAN SPEAK OUT
What do you think of this cruelty to peaceful Christians? Their preaching activity is banned. Even private Bible discussions are not allowed. Precious personal freedoms have been brushed aside. Jehovah’s witnesses and others throughout the world who love freedom of worship do not condone this arbitrary action by remaining silent.
If you would like to add your voice to the expressions of outrage at the action taken by the government of Cameroon against peace-loving Christians, then write to the Cameroon ambassador in your country or the one closest to it, or to the high officials in the Cameroon government listed on the preceding page.
Show your disappointment at this arbitrary action. Explain that the Witnesses do not interfere in politics anywhere and that the charges are without basis. Appeal to their respect for the dignity of man and freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution of Cameroon. Appeal to the officials on the basis of respect for the good name of their country and of Africa. Should not the president of Cameroon and his high officials be helped to realize that the rest of the world takes note of it when innocent Christians are cruelly abused? Should they not realize that Cameroon government officials have not made themselves more popular either with their own people or with right-hearted persons in other parts of the world by the way they have treated peace-pursuing Christians?
May your written appeal help restore a “Yes” to freedom of worship in Cameroon.
Adelaide Company of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Inc., v. The Commonwealth (1943), 67 C. L. R. 116, 124.
[Box on page 639]
CAMEROON GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS
El Hadj Ahmadou Ahidjo
President of the Federal
Republic of Cameroon
Palace of the President
Yaoundé, Federal Republic of Cameroon
Honorable Salomon Tandeng Muna
Vice-President of the
Federal Republic of Cameroon
Yaoundé, Federal Republic of Cameroon
Mr. Enoch Kwayeb
Minister of State in Charge of
Yaoundé, Federal Republic of Cameroon
Mr. Félix Sabal Lecco
Minister of justice
Yaoundé, Federal Republic of Cameroon
Mr. Raymond Ntheppe
Minister of Foreign Office
Ministry of Foreign Office
Yaoundé, Federal Republic of Cameroon
Mr. Vroumsia Tchinaye
Minister of Information
Yaoundé, Federal Republic of Cameroon
Mr. Joseph N. Owono, Ambassador
1705-7 New Hampshire Ave., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20009
Mr. Michel Njine, Ambassador
Cameroon Mission to the United
866 U.N. Plaza
New York, N.Y. 10017