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Cameroon, Holy See: Beyond Church-State Relations

By a decision (No 16/ATF/APA/2 of February 20, 1962) the government of the then Federal Republic of Cameroon recognized the Roman Catholic Church as a religious organization with the right to function in the country.

This decision made it one of the two-odd bodies that had obtained a similar authorization and since that time, the church has functioned in the country rather well as can be attested by the growing number of Catholics which has risen from a mere million-or-so at that time to over six million today.

But to see the presence of the Catholic Church only through the prism of a ministerial text underestimates the wide influence the Church has had, not only as a developmental partner as can be seen in its involvement in the broadest spectrum of national endeavour but, above all, by the special status the Catholic Church is supposed to enjoy by the very fact that its worldwide leader – the Pope – is also a Head of State.

It is in this context of bilateral State-to-State relations that the signing of a framework agreement signed yesterday January 13 in Yaounde on the juridical status of the Catholic Church in Cameroon between the Cameroon government and the The Vatican State must be understood; and not in any way making a preference of one church institution over several others as the case may be, considering the number of churches that freely operate in the country today.

The government of Cameroon and The Vatican State formally established diplomatic relations on October 31, 1966. With this event came the appointment of the first-ever Nuncio, Luigi Poggi. A Nuncio is a kind of Ambassador, but his influence is much different from an ordinary envoy plenipotentiary and extraordinary in the fact that he has enormous authority in the functioning of the local Catholic Church.

For example, Monsignor Poggi played a prominent role in the appointment of Bishop André Loucheur of Bafia and the Apostolic Prefects of Maroua-Mokolo, Jacques de Bernon and of Yagoua Louis Charpenet while his successor, Ernesto Gallina who took office on July 16, 1969 was also influential in the appointments of Bishop Ngande of Bafoussam, Verdzekov of Bamenda and Awa of Buea.

After these, there have been eight other Nuncios with the latest being Mgr Piero Pioppo who took office on January 25, 2010 and all of them played similar roles, justifying the fact that the Vatican is much more present on the field as ordinary diplomats would be.

The Vatican diplomatic exception is also seen from the fact that whereas, other diplomats are less present on the field, the church is very much a manifest of varying developmental initiatives, the most visible being in the form of basic and secondary education as well as vocational training, human rights and peace, the development of the human person, medical care and, lately, university education.

The framework agreement signed yesterday is not the first of its kind. In recent times, the government has signed similar instruments with the Holy See; the most recent in mind being the July 5, 1989 seat agreement on the international status of the Catholic University of Central Africa located in Yaounde and another on August 17, 1995 on the recognition of certificates and diplomas issued by the Yaounde Catholic Institute.

Moreover, there have been State visits between The Vatican and Cameroonian officials as well as high-level ones by senior Vatican officials to Cameroon. Most notable are the two visits by Pope John Paul II in 1985 and 1995 as well as that of Pope Benedict XX1 in March 2009. President Biya has also visited the Vatican and was received several times by the Pope, the most recent being on October 15, 2013. So, beyond being a religious institution in Cameroon, the Catholic Church has ramifications that put its relations with the Vatican more on a State-to-State pedestal.

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