Muslim and Christian clerics and leaders of all major denominations in Cameroon have jointly accused Cameroonians in the diaspora of funding the crisis that has rocked the English-speaking regions of the country for two years.
The clerics are asking both the military and armed groups to drop their guns and stop the killings, looting and burning of property. But the government says only the armed separatists should give up their guns.
Cheikh Oumarou Mallam, president of the Islamic superior council of Cameroon, said that as peace builders, Christians and Muslims should not be indifferent to the carnage devastating the central African country's western regions.
Addressing Christians and Muslims gathered at the Yaounde headquarters of the Episcopal Conference of Cameroon Bishops, Mallam said the council he leads decided to make a joint declaration with Christians because everyone in Cameroon's two English-speaking regions has been affected by the crisis.
The Rev. Gustav Ebai, a spokesman for the Council of Protestant Churches of Cameroon (CEPCA), read the declaration in which clerics accused Cameroonians living outside of their country of fueling the crisis:
"We call on the diaspora to stop the hate speech communication that promotes violence, suspicion and fear among the people of Cameroon," the statement said. "We call on the diaspora to participate in the political process of Cameroon using democratic and nonviolent means. We call on the diaspora to respect the sacredness of human life and children's rights to education. They should put an end to the trivialization of human dignity and the hostage takings of schools. We call on those who finance the activities of armed groups to stop this dirty work that aims at destroying the natural fabric of Cameroon."
The declaration was issued by the Episcopal conference of Cameroon's Roman Catholic bishops, the Council of Protestant Churches and the Islamic superior council of Cameroon, which brings together all mosques and churches except pentecostal denominations. It calls on all political parties and civil society to center their activities on bringing peace to troubled regions.
The group also calls on both armed separatists and the military to lay down their weapons and stop indiscriminate killings, kidnappings, looting and burning of public property, and allow children to go to school.
Cameroon's communication minister and government spokesman Issa Tchiroma praised the initiative, saying any effort to bring peace is welcome. But he said the government cannot respect calls to withdraw troops deployed to protect the population from groups the government labels as terrorists.
Tchiroma said no regular army in the world surrenders arms when fighting an enemy.
"In a law-abiding nation like our country, it is unacceptable to ask the government to put our regular army at the same level with terrorists," he said. "It is unbearable, unacceptable."
Forty percent of Cameroonians — close to 24 million — are Christian, 20 percent are Muslim. The rest hold indigenous beliefs.
Religious tolerance in Cameroon has been the norm since 2002, when religious-based violence by the extremist group Boko Haram hit the country's northern border. To further promote tolerance, several churches and mosques sponsored interfaith gatherings to jointly preach against Boko Haram ideology.
But the crisis began in 2016, when teachers and lawyers advocated against the overuse of French in the bilingual country. In October 2017, separatists declared what they called a new English-speaking republic in Cameroon called Ambazonia. The government waged a war on them.
Most of the separatist leaders escaped to other countries. Forty-seven of them, including Ayuk Tabe, who proclaimed himself Ambazonia's president, were caught in Nigeria and extradited to Cameroon.
Nearly 400 people have been killed, at least 70 schools torched and 200,000 residents displaced since October 2017.