The body of the Roman Catholic bishop of Bafia, Jean-Marie Benoît Bala, has been retrieved from the Sanaga River in southwest Cameroon 48 hours after police discovered his car and an apparent suicide note on the Ebebda bridge above the river on Wednesday afternoon.
The 58-year-old prelate’s Toyota Prado SUV contained a handwritten message on the bishop’s official stationery with the simple message “Je suis dans l’eau” (I am in the water), along with the bishop’s personal effects, including his national identity card, his driver’s license, and the documents of the vehicle.
While local officials suspect that a suicide is the probable cause of death, foul play has not been ruled out. Some have, in fact, suggested that the bishop was the victim of “a well-orchestrated assassination,” which requires careful investigation.
For instance, the scene of the bishop’s death was more than 30 miles from his home, suggesting he would have had to drive all that distance to take his life, which some consider implausible. Police hope that an autopsy on the bishop’s body may help elucidate cause of death and the manner in which it occurred.
Local media have reported that the bishop had written a personal letter to the apostolic nuncio in Cameroon two days prior to his disappearance, suggesting that the contents of the letter, yet undisclosed, might contain the key to the prelate’s demise:
Abbott Constant Amombo, a friend of Bishop Bala, shared his personal doubts about the possibility of suicide, stating that “the man I knew would not be capable of such a gesture.”
The abbott said that certain details of the event strike him as unusual and suggest that further information is required. For one, the bishop was “a good swimmer,” so why would he choose this method to kill himself? he asked. Furthermore, the Abbott said, this kind of death is “quite spectacular,” and “the message is light, childish and worthy of a Nollywood film,” all of which leads him to doubt the suicide hypothesis.
With great realism, however, Abbott Amombo added that, after all, “we are men.” And if this thesis of suicide were established, he said, “it would further deepen the meaning of the mystery that surrounds our lives.”
In an open letter, a former seminary student and friend of Bishop Bala, Prof. Vincent-Sosthène Fouda, encouraged all who knew the bishop to support him with their prayers.
“Let us not show him a false love by allowing our admiration to deprive him of our prayers. We continue to show him our affection and to do him good by praying for him: that all the stains of sin be cleansed, that all wounds be healed, that he be purified of all that is not Christ. May he rest in peace,” he wrote.
Jean-Marie Benoît Bala was appointed head of the diocese of Bafia in 2003. Located about 50 miles to the northwest of Yaoundé, Cameroon’s political capital, the diocese is home to 325,000 inhabitants, including nearly 200,000 Catholics.
In addition to studies in philosophy and theology at the major seminary of Nkolbisson, Bala held a degree in social sciences and management from the Catholic Institute of Yaounde. He was ordained a priest in 1987 by Bishop Jean Zoa.
Prior to his consecration as bishop, Father Bala served as rector of the minor seminary of Yaoundé.
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