Catholicism in Somalia: The Brave Few

The east African country, which borders Ethiopia and Kenya, has an overall population of about eleven million, of which 99.8% are Muslim.

When built in 1928, the Catholic cathedral in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital city, was the largest on the African continent. But more recent decades have not been kind to Somali Catholicism. In fact, the nation’s last Catholic bishop, Salvatore Colombo, was assassinated in 1989 while holding Mass inside the Mogadishu Cathedral, which since has been destroyed.

Though the country’s President at the time, Siad Barre, offered a reward for the capture of Colombo’s assassin(s), many suspected that Barre was behind the murder, which has remained unsolved.

In 1990, civil war broke out. Soon overrun by tribal warlords, Somalia became the world’s epitome of a failed state.

Some degree of order has slowly been restored, at least in Mogadishu. Somalia had its transitional federal government, and since August 2012 it has had an internationally recognized federal government. However, much of the country remains lawless.
an undated photo of the cathedral in mogadishu, somalia before it was destroyed.Even in Mogadishu the scene has been so dangerous that no bishop since the martyred Colombo has been appointed to the diocese.  Instead, the diocese has an apostolic administrator, Giorgio Bertin, who also serves as the Bishop of the Diocese of Djibouti, a nation of about 800,000 that borders Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia.

Somalia has an overall population of about eleven million, and at least 99.8% of the people are Muslim, with the vast majority being Sunni. It has been reported that there are just 100 Catholics in Somalia. However, the number is actually even less – about 30, plus a few foreign humanitarian workers, according to Bishop Bertin.

Of this brave Catholic 30, most are ethnic Somalis. Some of them have Christian names, while others do not.  Four or five of Somalia’s 30 Catholics belong to the Bantu ethnicity, says Bertin, who adds that there are basically no more Catholics of Italian heritage, and that any Catholic worship is typically conducted in secret.

Things weren’t always this way. Back in 1950, there were 8,500 Catholics living within the Diocese of Mogadishu, according to catholic-hierarchy.org.

Catholicism came to Somalia (then Italian Somaliland) in the late-19th century. Believers consisted of Italian immigrants and, later, converts from the Bantu ethnic group, which had been slaves in Somalia.

Marriages between Italian soldiers and Somali natives led to an increase in mixed-race Catholics, who received Italian citizenship upon being baptized. Since the decline of Italian influence in the mid-20th century, Catholicism kept decreasing in numbers.

Amid the fall of stable government and the rise of Islamic extremism, the situation for Catholics went from tenuous to deadly. Almost all of them fled. Bertin doesn’t know of any Catholic refugees in his Diocese of Djibouti, but he says they went to such nations as the U.S., Italy, Canada, Ethiopia, Holland, Norway, and Australia. Those few who remained in Somalia, or even visited there, were at high risk.

On Sept. 17, 2006, an Italian nun, Leonella Sgorbati, was fatally shot, along with her bodyguard, outside a children’s hospital in Mogadishu.

By the end of 2008, the grand Mogadishu Cathedral was in ruins. In subsequent years, the cathedral grounds have been used as a settlement for displaced people, according to an August 2012 BBC article.Bishop Giorgio Bertin OFM in a February 2010 photo (commons.wikimedia.org)
Right before Dec. 25, 2013, the Somali government officially banned any celebrations of Christmas inside the country.

On Christmas Day, 2014, eight gunmen belonging to the group al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate active in Somalia, ambushed a Christmas Party held at an African Union base located near Mogadishu’s international airport, killing four.

In December 2015, the Somali government reversed its 2013 ban on Christmas. In Bertin’s view, this reversal amounts to a formal concession from Somalia’s political leaders, and does not indicate any overall improvement in the general population’s attitude towards Catholics or any form of Christianity.

The Somali government doesn’t seem particularly concerned with curbing hostility towards religious minorities. In fairness, though, there have been plenty of other problems. For example, nearly 260,000 people – half of them children under age five – perished in a famine that hit Somalia between October 2010 and April 2012, according to the United Nations. Additionally, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that there are more than one million displaced persons living in Somalia.

Entering this landscape of catastrophe is the Catholic humanitarian group, Caritas Somalia, which works alongside other non-governmental organizations to assist Somalia’s displaced and suffering, regardless of their religion.

Caritas Somalia has its head office in Djibouti, and its President is none other than Bishop Giorgio Bertin. The bishop has visited Mogadishu twice, and has been there as recently as 2015. Given the perils, he stays just two or three days, during which time he meets with government officials, celebrates Mass for some Catholic foreigners, and surveys the projects that Caritas Somalia is working on with its local NGO partners. Through these efforts, many of the world’s neediest people receive help, and some sort of Church influence is sustained.  

As hostile as Mogadishu can be for Catholics, it’s still the nation’s safest place for them. Outside the city, the government’s authority declines into nonexistence, and Catholics – or, for that matter, anyone else – could be killed without any fear of official consequence.

According to Bertin, “It is difficult to say” if or when Somalia will ever become significantly safer for Catholics. He adds that, “First the state institutions must be restored, which could guarantee a form of protection for minorities.”

No churches remain intact in Somalia. And the situation is too dysfunctional for any attempt at restoring the Mogadishu Cathedral, which, in spite of having its roof blown off, still retains some vestige of its former Gothic beauty.

Instead, Bertin and his fellow Catholics are rehabilitating a Catholic church in Hargeisa, the capital city of Somaliland, an autonomous region in northern Somalia. Though Somaliland is significantly more functional than Somalia, it is not internationally recognized as a nation.

Caritas operates in both Somaliland and in Somalia, where, despite the animosity, the group carries on its work: fighting hunger, bringing emergency relief, and providing education and healthcare, among other services. However many Catholics there are in Somalia, Bertin says that, “Caritas will, I hope, continue to play a role.”


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About Ray Cavanaugh 10 Articles
Ray Cavanaugh is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). He has written for such publications as The Guardian, USA Today, and the Washington Post.