Thursday, July 08, 2010

Cameroon and the Catholic Church

The Supreme Court in the United Kingdom (which replaced the House of Lords) is regarded as one of the great judicial forums in the world.

Yesterday it delivered a civilised and humane judgment in a case involving the obligations of the United Kingdom Government towards refugees who come to the United Kingdom after fleeing persecution.

In the case HJ (Iran) and HT (Cameroon) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2010] UKSC 31 (07 July 2010) HJ and HT were homosexual men – from Iran and Cameroon, respectively – who sought asylum in the United Kingdom on the basis that they would face the risk of persecution on grounds of sexual orientation if returned to their home countries.

In both Iran and Cameroon it is a criminal offence punishable by, inter alia, imprisonment and, in the case of Iran, by the death penalty, for consenting adults to engage in homosexual acts.

There was no dispute that homosexuals are protected by the Refugee Convention

The Court held that to compel a homosexual person to pretend that their sexuality does not exist, or that the behaviour by which it manifests itself can be suppressed, is to deny him his fundamental right to be who he is. Homosexuals are as much entitled to freedom of association with others of the same sexual orientation, and to freedom of self-expression in matters that affect their sexuality, as people who are straight

The Convention confers the right to asylum in order to prevent an individual suffering persecution, which has been interpreted to mean treatment such as death, torture or imprisonment. Persecution must be either sponsored or condoned by the home country in order to implicate the Convention

The court went on to say that one of the fundamental purposes of the Convention was to counteract discrimination and the Convention does not permit, or indeed envisage, applicants being returned to their home country ‘on condition’ that they take steps to avoid offending their persecutors. Persecution does not cease to be persecution for the purposes of the Convention because those persecuted can eliminate the harm by taking avoiding action

Lord Hope, who read out the judgment, said:

"To compel a homosexual person to pretend that his sexuality does not exist or suppress the behaviour by which to manifest itself is to deny him the fundamental right to be who he is."

The court's judgment said that the term "concealment" was preferred to discretion, as this recognises that gay people in homophobic countries may need to be dishonest about their sexuality and that the average person would find it intolerable to have to conceal their sexuality for fear of persecution.

It added that UK authorities must consider whether asylum applicants have to conceal their sexuality at home for fear of persecution and if so, they should be given refugee status regardless of whether they can successfully keep their sexuality secret.

Such a decision seems to be in line with official Catholic teaching.

"10. It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church's pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law."

"2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition"

More recently on 18th December 2008, the representative of the Holy See made the following Official Statement to the 63rd Annual General Assembly of the United Nations:

"The Holy See appreciates the attempts made in the Declaration on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity –presented at the UN General Assembly on 18 December 2008- to condemn all forms of violence against homosexual persons as well as urge States to take necessary measures to put an end to all criminal penalties against them.

At the same time, the Holy See notes that the wording of this Declaration goes well beyond the abovementioned and shared intent.

In particular, the categories ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’, used in the text, find no recognition or clear and agreed definition in international law.

If they had to be taken into consideration in the proclaiming and implementing of fundamental rights these would create serious uncertainty in the law as well as undermine the ability of States to enter into and enforce new and existing human rights conventions and standards.

Despite the Declaration’s rightful condemnation of and protection from all forms of violence against homosexual persons, the document, when considered in its entirety, goes beyond this goal and instead gives rise to uncertainty in the law and challenges existing human rights norms.
The Holy See continues to advocate that every sign of unjust discrimination towards homosexual persons should be avoided and urges States to do away with criminal penalties against them."

It was rather a shock to read in the Report of the Supreme Court of what had happened to Mr HT who was a citizen of Cameroon:

The Court said:

"44. In the case of HT it is agreed that, following an occasion when he was seen kissing his then (male) partner in the garden of his home, the appellant was attacked by a crowd of people when leaving church. They beat him with sticks and threw stones at him. They pulled off his clothes and tried to cut off his penis with a knife. He attempted to defend himself and was cut just above the penis and on his hand. He was threatened with being killed imminently on the ground that “you people cannot be changed”. Police officers arrived and demanded to know what was going on and why the crowd were assaulting him. They were told it was because he was gay. One of the policemen said to the appellant “How can you go with another man?” and punched him on the mouth. The policemen then kicked him until he passed out. As a result of the injuries which he received he was kept in hospital for two months. After that, he was taken home by a member of his church who told him that he feared for his life and safety if he remained in Cameroon. This man made travel arrangements for HT who flew to the United Kingdom via another European country."

Such conduct is unconscionable.

But it was also disturbing to find that the Court noted:

" 45. In HT’s case the Tribunal was of the view that “in some respects the position in Cameroon was not dissimilar from the position in Iran and it was the view of the Tribunal that there might be difficulties for someone openly professing his homosexuality."

One of the judges also pointed out what had been said in the Court of Appeal by Lord Justice Pill, only to reject it outright:

"I should add that in his judgment in the present case, Pill LJ said at para 32 that in determining whether suppression was reasonably tolerable for an individual:

“....a degree of respect for social norms and religious beliefs in other states is in my view appropriate. Both in Muslim Iran and Roman Catholic Cameroon, strong views are genuinely held about homosexual practices. In considering what is reasonably tolerable in a particular society, the fact-finding Tribunal is in my view entitled to have regard to the beliefs held there” "

The idea that (1) Cameroon is a "Catholic country" in the same way as Iran is an "Islamic country" and (2) the position of gays in Cameroon is similar to that of gays in Iran is without any foundation.

One hopes that this is not used as some kind of justification for any protest for the forthcoming visit of the Pope.

Reference is made to

The country has a population of 18.1 million. Approximately 40 percent of the population is Christian, and 20 percent Muslim. The remaining 40 percent practices indigenous religious beliefs. The Christian population is divided between Roman Catholics (27 percent of the total population) and Protestants (13 percent). The largest Protestant groups are Presbyterians and evangelicals, while Jehovah's Witnesses and Pentecostals represent fewer than 2 percent of Protestants. There is also a small community of Baha'is.

The United States Religious Freedom Report has given a favourable report about freedom of religion in Cameroon:

"The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and other laws and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion. The law at all levels protects this right in full against abuse, either by governmental or private actors. The Constitution protects the right of individuals to choose and change their religion. The Government observes and enforces the right to practice the religion of one's choice, and any citizen has the right to sue the Government for the violation of any constitutionally guaranteed freedom.

The law does not restrict religious publishing or other religious media. ...

Several religious denominations operate primary and secondary schools. The law charges the Ministry of Basic Education and the Ministry of Secondary Education with ensuring that private schools run by religious groups meet the same standards as state-operated schools in terms of curriculum, infrastructure, and teacher training. For schools affiliated with religious groups, the Sub-Department of Confessional Education of the Department of Private Education performs this oversight function. Public schools do not incorporate religion into their curriculum. The Government gives an annual subsidy to all private primary and secondary education institutions, including those operated by religious denominations. There are also several religious universities around the country. ...

The Government generally respected religious freedom in practice. There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the reporting period.

The Government does not register indigenous religious groups, stating that the practice of traditional religion is a private concern observed by members of a particular ethnic or kinship group or the residents of a particular locality.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the country.

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States or who had not been allowed to be returned to the United States.

There were a few reports of societal discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Established churches denounced new unaffiliated religious groups, most of which are Protestant, as "sects" or "cults," claiming that they were detrimental to societal peace and harmony. In practice, such denunciation did not inhibit the practice of the unaffiliated religious groups.

Christians and Muslims organized ecumenical ceremonies to pray and promote a spirit of tolerance and peace. During Pope Benedict XVI's March 2009 visit to the country, the Catholic Church (represented by the Episcopal Conference of Cameroon) organized a meeting between the Pope and Muslim leaders to emphasize peaceful coexistence."

But in general the dictator who rules in Cameroon has been slated by the United States Department of State in its Human Rights Reports

In the 2009 Report, the United States said:

"Although civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of the security forces, security forces sometimes acted independently of government authority.

Human rights abuses included security force torture, beatings, and other abuses, particularly of detainees and prisoners. Prison conditions were harsh and life threatening. Authorities arbitrarily arrested and detained citizens advocating secession, local human rights monitors and activists, persons not carrying government-issued identity cards, and other citizens. There were incidents of prolonged and sometimes incommunicado pretrial detention and infringement on privacy rights. The government restricted freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association, and harassed journalists. The government also impeded freedom of movement. Other problems included widespread official corruption; societal violence and discrimination against women; female genital mutilation (FGM); trafficking in persons, primarily children; and discrimination against indigenous people, including pygmies, and homosexuals. The government restricted worker rights and the activities of independent labor organizations. Child labor, hereditary servitude, and forced labor, including forced child labor, were problems."

Cameroon is now as regarded as "a fragile State" with a poor human rights record. Unfortunately what happened to Mr H T is only a small part of the many wrongs experienced by ordinary Cameronians each day.

The Roman Catholic Church and its people in Cameroon have suffered under the present administration in Cameroon.

Several prominent Catholic leaders in Cameroon have lost their lives under suspicious circumstances in recent years, including:

•Fr. Joseph Mbassi, an editor-in-chief of L’Effort Camerounais, the country’s Catholic newspaper, murdered in October 1988, with his body mutilated;

•Fr. Bernabe Zambo, a pastor in the Bertoua archdiocese, poisoned in 1989;

•Fr. Anthony Fonteh, principal of Saint Augustine College in Nso, assassinated on campus in May 1990;

•Retired Archbishop Yves Plumey of Garoua, murdered in 1991;

•Sisters Germaine Marie and Marie Leonie of the Congregations of Daughters of Our Lady of Sacred Heart, killed in August 1992;

•Jesuit Fr. Englebert Mveng, a noted theologian, killed in 1995;

•German missionary Fr. Anton Probst, murdered in 2003.

Cardinal Christian Tumi of Douala is widely considered a national icon for his outspoken criticism of corruption and human rights violations, and his independence from the Biya government.

See the reports of John L Allen Jr in The National Catholic Reporter:

When the Holy Father visited Cameroon in March 2009, the reporting of his visit was overshadowed by some remarks which he made about condoms on the aeroplane. At least most of the Western newspapers were filled with adverse comments about these remarks rather than what he did actually say on the trip

Luke Coppen in The Catholic Herald summarised the main themes which the Pope dealt with on his short visit.

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