In Cameroon, religious freedom can’t be separated from politics

(RNS) — American religion and politics have been stubbornly connected — except where we pretend they aren’t.

Despite constitutional separations between church and state, religion has been more closely tied to politics and politics more closely tied to religion than most care to admit.

And yet, advocates for international religious freedom often treat religious freedom and political freedom as totally separate and distinct domains.

This separation of political and religious freedom was on display during the recent Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, an annual gathering hosted by the U.S. State Department.

The high-level event, where U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence spoke, exemplified the strengths of the religious freedom movement — but also its weaknesses.

Vice President Mike Pence addresses delegates at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on July 18, 2019. Photo by Ralph Alswang/ State Department/Public Domain

Among its weaknesses is a narrow definition of religious freedom and a primary focus on non-democratic Muslim or socialist-inclined nations long considered foes of the U.S.

Those nations highlighted in religious freedom reports produced by the State Department and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom include countries guilty of the worst repression and violence against religion in the world, including North Korea and China.

While these lists focus primarily on countries where religious association or observance is restricted, they leave off countries that put limits on acceptable forms of thought, action and expressions of conscience.

These are places like the nation of Cameroon, where religion (when understood in terms of religious conscience) is forced to hide in plain sight.

In Cameroon, a country where I served as a Fulbright professor in 2009, decades of systematic injustices visited upon the English-speaking minority by the French-speaking majority have brought the country to the brink of civil war.

Decades of political and economic marginalization have given rise to spurts of resistance by English-speaking leaders. This includes visible resistance coming from church leaders.

The Cameroonian government has not tolerated much public dissent from any quarter, including the faith sector, and has acted aggressively to tamp down groups it sees as a threat.

In 2013, for example, the government closed down 100 Pentecostal churches for what it claimed was criminal activities. The churches denied any wrongdoing. Instead, they believe the shutdown was to stop them from criticizing the government.

The government also took aim at dissenters by intermittently shutting down internet access in the two English-speaking provinces for 240 days between January 2017 and March 2018.

Churches have prevailed nonetheless as a platform for public dissent.

One of the most consistent critics of governmental policies and practices has been Christian Tumi, a Roman Catholic Cardinal whose outspokenness has subjected him to death threats and constant government surveillance. Cardinal Tumi’s vocal criticism of the government has emboldened other Catholic clergy to speak out.

This has resulted in the suspicious killings of at least seven priests and two Catholic sisters in recent decades and the banning of the Catholic Radio Veritas station.

Within the past few years, opposition to the government turned into armed struggle. This has pitted militias of young English-speaking men against federal troops who have engaged in violent putdowns of dissenting combatants and noncombatants alike.

Since the 2016 beginning of the secessionist uprising, more than 2,000 civilians have been killed or have “disappeared.” More than 400 were killed in 2018 alone. At least 437,000 persons have been displaced.

A church in Nkambe, Cameroon. Photo by Kintong/Creative Commons

The latter part of 2018 was especially costly for Cameroonian churches.

Seventy-nine children and three staff persons from a Presbyterian school were kidnapped in November of that year, presumably by separatists who demanded schools purportedly biased against English-speakers be closed down.

The kidnapped children and school staff were later released.

Among those less fortunate: a Presbyterian missionary from the U.S. was killed reportedly by government soldiers in October; a Cameroonian Catholic priest was shot and killed in July; a Catholic seminarian was shot and killed in October; and a Kenyan priest was shot and killed in November — all allegedly by government soldiers.

Charles Trumann Wesco was killed Oct. 30, 2018, in Cameroon. Photo courtesy of Believers Baptist Church

In addition, four Presbyterian churches were taken over by the government for use as military barracks, and 100 Presbyterian ministers have been forced to flee their homes.

“When churches attempt to mediate or assist members of one side of the crisis, they become targets for those on the other side of the conflict,” Jeff King, president of International Christian Concern, told Fox News earlier this year.

The situation in Cameroon has become quite grave, but it is baffling that a situation where such precipitous declines of religious and political freedom have been occurring could go without mention in annual reports from USCIRF and the State Department.

It is a clear indicator of the problematic criteria used within international religious freedom circles for assessing and advancing freedom around the world.

An emphasis on free exercise of religious concern and conscience brings with it a certain moral capital that carries weight with Republicans and Democrats alike.

Hopefully, opportunities for more effectively bringing that capital to bear on behalf of global freedom will not be squandered due to overly narrow conceptions of freedom.

R. Drew Smith. Courtesy photo

(R. Drew Smith is a political scientist and Baptist minister whose research, writing, and advocacy has focused on intersections between faith and politics in the U.S. and Africa. He also testified in 2011 on religious freedom in Africa before a U.S. House subcommittee. He is co-convener of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race and is a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

Preaching to Social Context: Africa

We are inviting sermons and faith-related public presentations that wrestle biblically, theologically, politically, or sociologically with the contexts and life-worlds within which Africans live and minister. These submissions will be considered for publication as part of a Transatlantic Roundtable series highlighting African social theologies and the day-to-day social contexts and situations into which those theologies speak. Upon completion of this initial volume focusing upon the African continent, submissions will be requested for additional volumes in the series focusing upon Afro-European, Caribbean, Afro-Latinx, and Afro-Canadian contexts.

Sermons and presentations for the Africa volume must be situated thematically within an African social and ministerial context. That is to say, the sermon or publicly-presented message must wrestle at its core with contextual and existential themes emanating from the lived experience of continental Africans. Sermons or public presentations addressing social policy issues, social justice concerns, social healing, or social empowerment are especially welcomed.

Sermons or presentations should be 2,500 words or less, and will be considered only from persons currently living and working in Africa. The submission should be accompanied by a brief autobiographical sketch of 250 words or less, outlining connections between the ministry and the context being addressed, and outlining the occasion and setting of the sermon or public presentation. Please submit only one sermon or presentation. Submissions should be publication-ready in their clarity, coherence, and writing mechanics. This initial publication in the series will be an English language publication, although we are hoping for translated submissions from non-English speaking African contexts as well. The editors for the Africa volume will be Prof. R. Drew Smith (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary), Prof. Philomena Mwaura (Kenyatta University, Kenya), Prof. Babatunde Adedibu (Redeemed Christian Bible College, Nigeria), and Prof. Mokhele Madise (University of South Africa).

Please forward submissions for the Africa volume by February 15, 2019 to Prof. R. Drew Smith: We anticipate being able to accept approximately 20 sermons or public presentations for the Africa volume and hope to notify persons by April 30, 2019 as to whether their submission has been selected for publication in this volume. We look forward to the possibility of your participation.

What Happens When Meghan Markle’s Blackness Losses its Sparkle?

The wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle has been hailed as a pivotal moment for multicultural Britain. But Dr William Ackah (Department of Geography) argues that it is just another fleeting false dawn and there will be little lasting, positive impact for Black Britons.

Symbols are important. For some people, seeing Meghan Markle marry into the monarchy, while a Black preacher expounded the word and a Black Choir sang at the ceremony, was viewed as ushering in a new area of racialised harmony and black cultural acceptance at all levels of British society. If blackness is acceptable to the monarchy, then surely it can be embraced by everyone? One can envisage that cascading out from the memories of the day; TV production companies will make documentaries on relationships across cultural and racial boundaries; there will be operas and plays about mixed cultural and racialised identities and new research council funding streams on identity, relationships and difference. Once again, black culture will be examined, explored, explained, celebrated, debated and mined by White people as something new and exotic.

In contrast to the negativity surrounding racialised minorities due to fears over migration and religious and cultural differences, Markle’s Blackness will provide the space for more and more elements of White society to once again be comfortable in talking about how they have Black friends, or how they are down with Stormzy’s lyrics, had a Black choir sing at their wedding and rap lyrically about their love of Jerk chicken. This, I envisage, will be the new language – at least for a while – that will showcase multi-cultural Britain. Meanwhile, the structures of institutionalised racism that leaves the majority of Britain’s black communities at the margins of British society remain unchanged.

We have been here before. Black culture is cool for a time; it is supposedly edgy, hip, and transgressive, and it is useful for British elites to be associated with it in order to project an image of modernity, tolerance and cultural relevance. When London made its bid for the Olympics, it projected a powerful image of itself as a global city a multicultural, multi-ethnic place with a vision of East London as a space and place of opportunity for Black communities and the descendants of migrants from all over the world. This was in contrast to the French bid – fronted by White men and regarded as old fashioned and tired. It could be said that it was the Black and Minority Ethnic Cultural presence that won it for London. Fast forward to today and in East London we have a Queen Elizabeth Park, a Westfield Shopping Complex, the great and the good of elite educational/arts/cultural institutions are moving into the area taking advantage of all the facilities and opportunities. But what has happened to those Black poster children of the Olympic vision that were the catalyst for the change? They apparently have lost their ‘sparkle’ and are being forced out of their homes, businesses and communities and are being erased from the collective consciousness of post-Olympic East London.

Britain has a long history of adoring high profile African Americans and treating them regally whilst perpetrating systematic racialised injustices against its Black British population. Muhammad Ali was a source of fascination and immense entertainment when he boxed and toured Britain in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Martin Luther King was admired and lauded when he preached in Westminster Abbey and garnered honorary doctorates here in the ‘60s. Paul Robeson the legendary singer, actor and political activist was a huge star of the stage here in the late 1920s and early ‘3’s, and spoke to huge admiring crowds in many parts of the country. The same is true of the African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass who spoke to thousands of people across Britain in the late 19th Century. And if it was thought that Meghan Markle was the first to bring gospel music to the attention of royalty one would be mistaken. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, an African American choral group from a Black college in Nashville, sang for Queen Victoria in 1873 and toured Britain and Europe, singing for the elites who were both intrigued and moved by the power of their renditions of the Spirituals.

The British establishment has used and abused black people for centuries, whilst occasionally celebrating and feting them with adoration and praise. The Monarchy and the Church of England, both central to the representation of Blackness as a celebratory theme at the wedding, have been deeply complicit in these enterprises. It was royal charters that endorsed the heinous enterprises of transatlantic enslavement and colonisation and the Church ‘owned’ and profited from the labour of enslaved Africans. And through their missionary endeavours they provided the velvet glove of justification for the iron fist of economic, cultural and social brutalisation of many nations and people in Africa and Asia.

These historical realities, and not just historical niceties, have their contemporary manifestations in the treatment of black and minority ethnic bodies in incidences such as the Grenfell and Windrush scandals and the marginalisation and lack of equitable treatment that Black communities receive here. British institutions want to be portrayed as contributing to a world of love and cultural celebration, but they refuse to deal with the legitimate claims of Black communities for justice and reparations. While these claims for justice continue to be ignored, talk of the wedding as an example of Britain’s successful multiculturalism is, to be frank, bulls**t (for example, Douglas Murray ‘s Spectator blog Meghan Markle and the myth of ‘racist’ Britain Spectator, dated 21 May)

British institutions – political, economic, religious and cultural – are manure-peddling institutions. A few Black flowers do grow and flourish against all the odds in these institutional spaces. And when the Black exceptionalisms do emerge, they are asked to sing, play, run, jump, speak and represent the nation. Some are given knighthoods and honours, and some people do manage to have meaningful relationships in this environment. The institutions then use these small success stories to portray themselves as smelling of roses in relation to ‘diversity’ issues. What the institutions fail to acknowledge, and systematically address, are the numbers of Black people for whom the institutional manure is toxic. And how in some cases the institutional environment leads to death, imprisonment, educational underachievement, poor life expectancy, limited employment prospects, lack of political representation, deportation, poor mental health …. the list goes on and on. It needs more than an interracial romance, a few songs, some mentoring schemes and a Stephen Lawrence day to compensate for all the racist manure and meaningless diversity schemes that British institutions have been peddling in order to placate both minorities and the majority in this country. What Black people require are concrete manifestations of compensations for past wrongs and guarantees of formal equality and justice moving forward. All this other stuff, as beautiful as it looks and happy as it makes people feel, is just bulls**t. Same old empire, just different clothes!

Our ancestors, as enslaved and colonial subjects, built and paid for the maintenance of this system – and now, in the form of tax, we still pay for it. When we complain, we are told look at Meghan, sing and be grateful! Well as far is this country is concerned the song is this: “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child a long way from home”. I wait to be culturally orphaned again, once the fascination with Meghan’s Blackness loses its sparkle.

William Ackah, Birkbeck, University of London

Diaspora Dialogues in Palestine

Rev. Waltrina Middleton who served as a primary host of the 2017 Transatlantic Roundtable conference at Howard University will be facilitating a “Diaspora Dialogues in Palestine” immersion visit as part of her organization, Walking on Water Global Ministries.  Transatlantic Roundtable is passing along details below about this important global justice learning opportunity.

Diaspora Dialogues in Palestine will depart Thursday, March 08, 2018 (arriving Friday, March 09) and sojourn to what has historically been called “The Holy Land” through Sunday, March 18 (arriving Sunday, March 18), exploring narratives from Israeli and Palestinian communities. The delegation will depart from Washington, DC and arrive in Tel Aviv. Upon arrival the group will travel to Jerusalem and also explore Bethlehem, Hebron, Ramallah and other sacred sites to engage dialogue on human rights, social justice, faith, education, and the socio-political landscape of the region. The all-inclusive journey will cost $1,995.00 (based on double occupancy), and includes the following:

Roundtrip Air Travel from Washington, DC
Housing (double/9 nts)
Meals(breakfast, dinner, most lunches and snacks)
Local Transportation
*Single occupancy is $175 additional premium cost. Gratuity is not included. Participants are encouraged to provide gratuity to drivers, wait staff, and guides.

For further information, please contact Rev. Middleton at:

Grant Awarded to Assess Reconciliation Practices in East Africa

Dr. Elias Opongo, director of the Hekima Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations in Nairobi, and Dr. R. Drew Smith, Transatlantic Roundtable coordinator of research and publications, have been awarded a $50,000 two-year grant to assess cultural and Christian practices of reconciliation in South Sudan and northern Uganda. The grant comes through the “African Theological Advance” initiative of Calvin College’s Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity, which is an initiative funded by the Templeton Foundation. Opongo and Smith, with a team of local researchers, will interview persons affected by recent conflicts in South Sudan and northern Uganda and also church leaders and community leaders engaged in peace and reconciliation efforts within those contexts. This research project aligns with Transatlantic Roundtable’s heightened emphasis on regional research, and the findings and learnings from this research group will be a very intentional part of the broader research dialogues that will take place at the 2019 TRRR conference to be hosted at Hekima College.

About Us

The Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race (TRRR) is a community of discourse, focusing on religious responses to issues of race (and similarly functioning ethnic or cultural markers of social otherness) within contemporary western cultures. At the heart of the TRRR initiative is a concern that a current obstacle to addressing persistent racial problems in a number of western contexts is that “race” is increasingly dismissed as a category of explanation for social problems—even where blacks find themselves disproportionately enduring adverse social dynamics and conditions. TRRR wants to insure that where race is an accurate and useful explanation for social problems and potential solutions that it receives appropriate attention. Though TRRR’s approach is scholarly, its commitment is to advancing informed and progressive approaches to persistent racial problems in dialogue and collaboration with broad publics (including faith-based, civil society, and governmental leaders). 


TRRR Conveners are R. Drew Smith, Morehouse College; William Ackah, Birkbeck, University of London; and Rothney Tshaka, University of South Africa.


TRRR Advisory Council:

Allan Boesak (chair), University of the Free State and Stellenbosch University

Iva E. Carruthers, The Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference, Inc.

Frank Chikane, University of the Witwatersrand

Carol B. Duncan, Wilfred Laurier University

Walter Earl Fluker, Boston University

Marla F. Frederick, Harvard University

J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, Trinity Theological College

Nico Koopman, Stellenbosch University

Emmanuel Lartey, Candler School of Theology, Emory

R. David Muir, Faith in Britain

Peter J. Paris, Princeton Theological Seminary

Andrew Phillips, University of South Africa

Anthony Pinn, Rice University

Anthony G. Reddie, Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education

Gosnell Yorke, University of KwaZulu-Natal and University of South Africa

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