Cameroonian bishop's reported suicide raises questions

Sanaga River, Cameroon (Photo via Wikipedia Commons) Sanaga River, Cameroon (Photo via Wikipedia Commons)

Catholic leaders in Cameroon have urged prayers for one of the African country's bishops, whose remains were pulled from a river on June 2, three days after his apparent suicide.

"This is a catastrophe for Cameroon, and particularly for our Catholic Church," said a June 5 statement on the bishops' conference website.

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"We place our confidence in those helping the country and church by inquiring into the explicit causes of the death of this man of God, about whose level-headedness, thoughtfulness, wisdom, patience and gentleness no one had a bad word to say," the statement said.

Archbishop Samuel Kleda of Douala, bishops' conference president, had gone with Archbishop Jean Mbarga of Yaounde to identify the body of Bishop Jean-Marie Benoit Bala of Bafia, after it was found by a fisherman in the Sanaga River, near Monatele, the bishops' conference said.

The statement added that the 58-year-old bishop's May 31 overnight disappearance from his residence had not yet been "clarified," and said the church still awaited an explanation for his "appalling, disturbing death."

The French-language African Press Agency, based in Dakar, Senegal, said June 6 that media reports that Bishop Bala had taken his own life were questioned by police and justice officials. The agency said Cameroon's procurator-general had confirmed investigations were underway into the prelate's "suspicious death."

Ordained in 1987, Bishop Bala was appointed to Bafia by St. John Paul II in April 2003 after serving as a school chaplain and seminary rector in the diocese, 75 miles north of Yaounde, the Cameroonian capital.

The Journal du Cameroun daily said the bishop's Land Cruiser had been found parked June 1 on a bridge in Yaounde. A handwritten message in French, "I am in the water," was among identification cards on its passenger seat, authorities said.

The report added that Bishop Bala, whose body was discovered floating 10 miles downstream, had been a popular figure at Bafia, showing "great concern and care" for the sick and poor from the city's St. Sebastian Cathedral.

A local priest, Father Remy Ngomo, told the online Camernews agency the bishop had appeared "very preoccupied and full of suffering" when he spoke with him in late May, adding that he had been "totally devastated" by the recent unexplained death of his seminary director, Msgr. Armel Collins Ndjama, who was found dead in his room May 10.

"I invite all friends of the church, whether Christians or not, to show a grand serenity of peace, hope and charity, and avoid useless judgements and debates with can only profit the devil and his allies," Father Ngomo said.

"God will reveal his intentions and wishes, and give us his grace and blessing, so the public authorities can discover the truths still hidden behind this terrible event."

However, the Camernews agency reported June 6 that a medical investigator had cited "signs of torture" on Bishop Bala's body, and indications that he had been dead before entering the water.

The Catholic Church's 24 dioceses account for 38 percent of Cameroon's 20.4 million inhabitants, with Protestants making up 26 percent and Muslims 21 percent, according to the U.S. State Department's International Religious Freedom Report.

In 2014, the government of President Paul Biya, in power since 1982, signed a framework agreement with the Vatican on the church's legal status.

Still, Catholic communities have been increasingly attacked by cross-border insurgents from the Nigeria-based Boko Haram insurgents, which allied itself with Islamic State in March 2015. The insurgents have killed hundreds of police, army troops and civilians in Cameroon's Extreme North province, an area also badly affected by flooding and food shortages.

The Bafia Diocese, which has 21 priests and 57 religious order members spread over 15 parishes, was preparing to mark its 50th anniversary in January.

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