Moki Edwin Kindzeka
YAOUNDE—Nigerian Muslims who fled to Cameroon to escape Boko Haram say they are being shunned as suspected sympathizers of the insurgent group. And the suspicions are not only from Cameroonians but Nigerian Christians who do not trust them and refuse to live with them in refugee camps.
French-born Muslim Rashid Abou Houdeyfa preaches peace and tolerance at the central mosque in Cameroon's capital, Yaounde. Among those listening is Nigerian refugee Abdoulaye Diallo, who says he fled his hometown of Dikwa to get away from Boko Haram, but has been persecuted in Cameroon by people who think he is a sympathizer of the Nigerian terrorist group.
He says many people mistakenly think that Islam and Boko Haram are synonymous and do not trust Muslims. He says Boko Haram is not Islam.
But that message is a hard sell in communities victimized by Boko Haram violence, kidnappings and raids that have spilled into Cameroon in the past few years, as the insurgents fight to set up a caliphate in northern Nigeria.
History of violence
Oumarou Ngomna, the traditional ruler of Kemzogo village on Cameroon's northern border with Nigeria, says he does not accept strangers who are Muslims because they have had a history of violence in Nigeria.
He says he had to ask them to leave his village because he was informed that some Muslims in Nigeria burn mosques, churches and villages and even slaughter people. He says he is very skeptical of any Muslim visitors.
Sociologist Manga Pegui says he feels threatened when he sees Nigerian Muslims.
"I feel threatened because I see what is happening in neighboring Nigeria. I see that carnage that Boko Haram has been inflicting on innocent people in Nigeria and in Cameroon and I see what Islamist extremists are doing in other countries," he said.
But it is not just Nigerian Muslims who are shunned. Nigerian Christians also face stigma and suspicion. Elias Yega is among them.
"They combine us together, both Muslims and Christians. But sometimes we have problems because we call them Boko Haram and they will arrest them and take to security people here," said Yega.
The growing stigmatization has prompted religious groups to step up their messages of tolerance. Christian Manuba is with the Catholic Church’s Ecumenical Service for Peace. He says while people must be vigilant of security threats, they must also have compassion for the Nigerians who are in desperate circumstances.
"It is very, very deplorable. First of all the refugees have lost all of their livelihoods. There is no other means of survival. They now depend on the goodwill of the host communities, perhaps of the host government," said Manuba.
Chieck Oumarou Ibrahim, a Muslim spokesperson in Yaoundé, agrees. He tells VOA there is Christian-Muslim cooperation here to help overcome the stigma Nigerian Muslims face.
"We have talked about something which is essential and we can do it. It is inter-religious dialogue. We are joining ourselves with Christians and praying together. We are doing our best educating our children, our population in mosques and in churches to live in peace," said Ibrahim.
But the problem can be complex in the face of tactics used by the insurgents. In February, Cameroon's military arrested groups of Boko Haram fighters who were disguised as refugees.