U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999 - Cameroon

Section I. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.

Relations between the State and religious groups are governed chiefly by the Law on Religious Congregations. Religious groups must be approved and registered with the Ministry of Territorial Administration in order to function legally; there were no reports that the Government refused to register any group. It is illegal for a religious group to operate without official recognition, but the law prescribes no specific penalties for doing so. Although official recognition confers no general tax benefits, it does allow religious groups to receive real estate as gifts and legacies for the conduct of their activities. In order to register, a religious denomination must fulfill the legal requirement to qualify as a religious congregation. This definition includes "any group of natural persons or corporate bodies whose vocation is divine worship" or "any group of persons living in community in accordance with a religious doctrine." The denomination then submits a file to the Minister of Territorial Administration. The file must include a request for authorization, a copy of the charter of the group which describes planned activities, and the names and respective functions of the officials of the group. The Minister studies the file and sends it to the presidency with a recommendation for a positive or negative decision. The President generally follows the recommendation of the Minister, and authorization is granted by a presidential decree. The approval process usually takes several years, due primarily to administrative slowness. The only religious groups known to be registered are Christian and Muslim groups and the Baha'i Faith, but other groups may be registered. The Ministry has not disclosed the number of registered denominations, but the number of registered religious groups is estimated to be in the dozens. The Government does not register traditional religious groups, on the grounds that the practice of traditional religions is not public but rather private to members of a particular ethnic or kinship group, or to the residents of a particular locality.

Muslim centers and Christian churches of various denominations operate freely throughout the country. Approximately 40 percent of the population are at least nominally Christian, about 20 percent are at least nominally Islamic, and about 40 percent practice traditional indigenous religions or no religion. Of the Christians, approximately half are Catholics, and about half are affiliated with Protestant denominations. Christians are concentrated chiefly in the southern and western provinces. The two Anglophone provinces of the western region are largely Protestant; the Francophone provinces of the southern and western regions are largely Catholic. Muslims are concentrated chiefly in the northern provinces, where the locally dominant Fulani (or Peuhl) ethnic group is overwhelmingly Islamic, and other ethnic groups, known collectively as the Kirdi, are generally partly Islamicized. The Bamoun ethnic group of the western provinces is also largely Islamic. Traditional indigenous religions are practiced in rural areas throughout the country but rarely are practiced publicly in cities, in part because many such religions are intrinsically local in character.

Religious missionaries are present throughout the country and operate without impediment, including 100 American missionaries and their dependents. Several religious denominations also operate diverse private schools. The Catholic Church, the largest religious denomination in the country, also operates the country's only private institution of general post-secondary education, as well as the country's only private radio stations, one of the country's very few modern private printing presses, and a bimonthly newspaper, which until the 1990's was one of the only private newspapers in the country.

Although post-secondary education continues to be dominated by state institutions, private schools affiliated with religious denominations, including Catholic, Protestant, and Koranic schools, have long been among the country's best schools at the primary and secondary levels. The Ministry of Education is charged by law with ensuring that private schools run by religious groups meet the same standards as state-operated schools in terms of curriculum, building quality, and teacher training. For schools affiliated with religious groups, this oversight function is performed by the Sub-Department of Confessional Education of the Ministry's Department of Private Education.

Disputes within registered religious groups about control of places of worship, schools, real estate, or financial assets are resolved in the first instance by the executive branch rather than by the judiciary. In November 1997, 81 of 87 churches of the Cameroon Baptist Conference (CBC) in the Belo Field District, in Boyo Division of Northwest Province, reportedly withdrew from the CBC and formed a new denomination, the Cameroon National Baptist Convention (CNBC). In March 1998, the Ministry of Territorial Administration reportedly ordered CNBC clergy to cease using CBC facilities and to cease operating CBC schools. According to one media report, a 1997 Ministry of Education decision about the control and supervision of CBC-affiliated schools precipitated the withdrawal of the dissenting congregations.

The sites and personnel of religious institutions were not exempt from the widespread human rights abuses committed by government security forces. On the night of January 3, 1998, soldiers of the 21st reconnaissance battalion broke into the St. Paul's Parish Hall in Nylon, near Douala International Airport, beat and stabbed the priest and several young persons, raped young women, and stole funds. Thirty soldiers were arrested in connection with this incident. In October 1998, the Douala Military Tribunal reportedly began to try 25 soldiers who allegedly were involved. There were no reports of subsequent developments in this case.

Government officials criticized and questioned criticisms of the Government by religious institutions and leaders, but there were no reports that Government officials used force to suppress such criticism. During the 1997 presidential election campaign, government representatives verbally attacked the Catholic Church for being overly supportive of the political opposition through its forthright criticism of corruption and mismanagement in government. On March 15, 1998, police questioned Ofon Ombaku Nyambi, pastor of a Presbyterian church in Santa in Northwest Province, concerning a sermon Nyambi had preached earlier the same day, in which he had blamed the Government for the poverty that had led to the February 1998 looting of a fuel depot in Yaounde that then exploded, killing about 200 persons.

The Government does not have a program to promote interfaith understanding.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Relations among different religious groups are generally amicable.

However, some religious groups face societal pressures within their regions. In the northern provinces, especially in rural areas, societal discrimination by Muslims against persons who practice traditional indigenous religions is strong and widespread, and some Christians in rural areas of the north complain of discrimination by Muslims. However, no specific incidents or violence stemming from religious discrimination were reported, and the reported discrimination may reflect ethnic as much as religious differences. The northern region suffers from ethnic tensions between the Fulani, a Muslim group that conquered most of the region 200 years ago, and the Kirdi, the descendents of groups that practiced traditional indigenous religions and whom the Fulani conquered or displaced, justifying their conquest on religious grounds. Although some Kirdi subsequently have adopted Islam, the Kirdi remain socially, educationally, and economically disadvantaged relative to the Fulani in the three northern provinces. (The slavery still practiced in parts of the north is reported to be largely enslavement of Kirdi by Fulani.)

There were also occasional reports of isolated conflict between Christians and practitioners of traditional indigenous religions. In December 1998, according to an unconfirmed media report, members of a local traditional secret society, the Nwerong, accused Emmanuel Ngah, the pastor of the Cameroon Baptist Church in Ndu, a village in Northwest Province, of having killed by witchcraft Emmanuel Siben, an employee of the state-owned electrical power company. The Nwerong reportedly attempted to expel Ngah from the village, along with eight other persons whom the Nwerong also accused of practicing witchcraft. Some of the nine persons reportedly left Ndu for the neighboring village of Ntumbaw, from which they reportedly were expelled by the Nwerong of Ntumbaw.

There was one incident of religiously motivated violence by practitioners of a traditional indigenous religion against persons who did not practice that religion. In April 1999, near Buea in Southwest Province, villagers said to be acting on the orders of local traditional rulers beat three Germans working with a nongovernmental environmental organization for taking pictures of Mount Cameroon during an eruption of that volcano. Local traditional rulers reportedly had banned all travel to the mountain pending traditional indigenous religious rites to appease local deities in the hope of controlling the eruption.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy maintained regular contact with religious groups in the country, monitored religious freedom, and discussed religious freedom with government officials in the context of its overall efforts to promote respect for human rights.

The Annual Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom describes the status of religious freedom in each foreign country, and government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world. It is submitted in compliance with P.L. 105-292 (105th Congress) and is cited as the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

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