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In Somalia, a tiny Catholic community brings a glimmer of hope

Torn apart by war, famine, and terrorism, Somalia saw the consecration of its sole Catholic church last summer.

Bishop Giorgio Bertin, the apostolic administrator of Mogadishu, stands outside St. Anthony of Pandua Church in Hargeisa, Somalia. The new church opened in August of last year. (Photo courtesy of Bishop Bertin)

Last August, Bishop Giorgio Bertin, bishop of Djibouti and apostolic administrator of Mogadishu, consecrated the Church of St. Anthony of Padua, the only Catholic church in Somalia.

The small church is in the city of Hargeisa, in the northwest of the country. Its opening signaled a new chapter for the tiny Christian community in the war-torn country, which is the home-base of Al-Shabaab, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in East Africa.

The Islamist militant group has continued to pose a threat to Christians in region, carrying out suicide attacks locally while exporting its form of terror to neighboring countries.

In Somalia, the Islamists have targeted all sectors, from civilians to military personnel and diplomats. Christians in particular have been singled out, forcing them into what are essentially underground communities.

Al-Shabaab is a salafi Jihadist group, the full name of which is “Harakat al-Shabaab al-mujahedeen.” In Arabic, it means Mujahedeen Youth Movement or Striving Youth Movement. The militant group is an offshoot of the Union of Islamic Courts, which splintered in 2006.

Emerging as the main Islamist militant group in Somalia, Al-Shabaab has been promoting a radical form of Sharia law, particularly in the southern part of the country. It has carried out killings, amputations, and beheadings to enforce its radical interpretation of Sharia.  A 22,000-strong coalition of troops from Kenya, Ethiopia, Burundi, Uganda, and Djibouti have been fighting the militants in Southern Somalia.

Under Al-Shabaab, members of other faiths, including Christians, have no space to operate and proselytization is banned. Generally, it too dangerous to be a Christian openly in Somalia and those who are discovered are at risk of beheading or execution by firing squad.

The killing of Bishop Colombo

In 1989, Bishop Pietro Salvatore Colombo, the first Catholic bishop of Somalia, was shot dead inside the main cathedral in Mogadishu. The 67-year-old bishop had served the people of Somalia for 43 years. Although President Mohamed Siad Barre blamed the death on Islamic militants and offered a reward for capture of the killers, it is believed the dictator ordered the killing to end the bishop’s criticism of his regime.

Barre was overthrown in 1991 and was forced to flee after rival clan militia captured Mogadishu, the capital and seat of the government. The fall of Barre’s regime ushered in a period of anarchy in Somalia, with rival warlords struggling for the control of the country. Thousands of Somali civilians were killed and many more were wounded.

In the struggle, the capital of city Mogadishu was destroyed. The Church was also hit in the violence, with militants bringing down the city’s Catholic cathedral, the only one in the country.

The ensuing chaos forced out Catholic missionaries, with the last three religious sisters—who had run a hospital—leaving in 1998, after the kidnapping at gunpoint of a fourth sister.

Hargeisa opening

After nearly 27 years, there has been a little change, Bishop Bertin said in a recent interview, with the establishment of an official Catholic presence and the Church of St. Anthony of Pauda in Hargeisa. Hargeisa has proved more welcoming than Mogadishu, where Al-Shabaab carries out suicide attacks and assassination on almost daily basis.

“At the beginning of August, I opened and consecrated the little church we have in Hargeisa,” Bishop Bertin said. “I have a permanent priest there.” He added that the church community is able to operate, but that they must remain very discreet in their activities.

Around 10 Christians have been attending Mass in the small church, something Bishop Bertin describes as very significant for the Catholic Church in Somalia. The congregation is largely foreign, composed of workers for the UN or the other humanitarian agencies that have bases in Hargeisa. The church also acts as the base of Caritas Somalia, which runs programs such as rehabilitation of schools and hospitals, food aid, and assistance to poor children.

“Now I can say we have some little presence in some part of Somalia, but not in Mogadishu, where it is still too early because of insecurity,” Bishop Bertin said.

A few factors have led to this development for the Church in Hargeisa. The northwestern city of 80,000 people is thriving and re-inventing itself apart from the conflicts of the southern parts of the country. It is comparatively safe—one can sip coffee in the open and ride in the streets without much fear. People are also welcoming, a fact often attributed to the city’s having been rebuilt by a diaspora community.

At the same time hope continues to grow throughout the larger country. Last month Somalia elected Mohammed Abdullahi Mohamed Farmajo as president; Farmajo, who holds both Somali and US citizenship, is a former diplomat and is described as a no-nonsense leader.

His election is being viewed as presenting a good chance for peace negotiations between the militants and the government. In Somalia’s conflict, clan dynamics play a critical role. Farmajo hails from the Marehan sub-clan, while his Prime Minister, Hassan Ali, is from the Murusade sub-clan. Most of the Al-Shabaab leaders allegedly hail from Murusade. Observers see this as a possible window that could be utilized to launch talks with the terror group.

Its needs to be noted, however, that the militants have threatened increased attacks on Farmajo’s government. In February, a senior commander in the group rejected the new president as an apostate and warned citizens against supporting him.

“We will fight against him in his four-year term,” a Somali news station quoted Sheikh Hassan Yakub Ali, a senior Al-Shabaab official, as saying. He denounced Farmajo, in particular for carrying an American passport.

Exporting terror

The development in Hargeisa is a welcome sign for the Church, for relief agencies, and for neighboring countries. It means at least some semblance of peace is taking shape in troubled Somalia.

But with terrorist attacks targeting Christians spilling into Kenya, many Christian leaders are worried.

The attacks in Kenya are mostly concentrated in the border regions of Mandera and Lamu, but there have been fears that it is only a matter of time before more attacks spread to Nairobi or Mombasa or Garissa.

Attacks in Kenya started escalating in October 2011, when Kenya sent its army to Somalia to fight Islamist militants. Kenya accused Al-Shabaab of kidnapping foreign aid workers, tourists, and Kenyan nationals, spiriting them off to Somalia to demand ransoms.

Soon after the entry of the Kenyan army, militants reacted by sending agents across the border to conduct attacks. Since then, there have lone-wolf attacks in the border regions, in addition to deadly assaults at the Westgate Upscale Shopping Mall in Nairobi in 2013 and the Garissa University College in 2015.

In the university attack, 148 people were killed in the northeastern Kenyan town of Garissa. Nearly all the dead were Christian students targeted for their faith; as the massacre occurred, the gunmen allowed Muslims to flee the scene.

Two years earlier, Al-Shabaab gunmen had targeted the Israeli-owned Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, killing at least 67 people and injured more than 175. Those who could recite the Shahada—the Muslim profession of faith—were set free.

Kenyan bishops have been expressing concern that Al-Shabaab is recruiting youth for more attacks in Kenya and elsewhere.

“It is very painful to note the frequent loss of lives due to terrorists in those areas of our country that border Somalia,” said Bishop Philip Anyolo, the chairman of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, in November.

While it is clear that the Al-Shabaab militants are not going anywhere anytime soon, Christian leaders in Somalia and its neighboring countries still look to small glimmers of hope—such as the tiny Catholic Church of St. Anthony of Padua—as they strive to bring peace to the troubled region.


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About Fredrick Nzwili 16 Articles
Fredrick Nzwili is journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

9 Comments

  1. Somaliland is a self-declared state internationally recognized as an autonomous region of Somalia.
    The government of Somaliland regards itself as the successor state to the former British Somaliland protectorate, which as the State of Somaliland united as scheduled on 1 July 1960 with the Trust Territory of Somaliland (the former Italian Somaliland) to form the Somali Republic.
    Somaliland lies in northwestern Somalia, on the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden. It is bordered by the remainder of Somalia (per international recognition) to the east, Djibouti to the northwest, and Ethiopia to the south and west. Its claimed territory has an area of 137,600 square kilometres (53,100 sq mi), with approximately 4 million residents. The capital and the largest city is Hargeisa, with the population of around 1,500,000 residents

    • Hahahah Mawliid it looks like somaliland seeks it’s recongnition under catholic church and this type of behavioural for giving up to churches will lead to demish the dignity of the somali people who are 100% muslim suni population. So i would suggest my brothers and sisters from northren part of somalia to search the reconginition they are thust from somalia which is the only way they can achieve their Goal but begging catholic churches will get to no where.
      Thanks inadvance.

      • Osman, My Comment explaining and only correcting the information they used during the report. You can’t find a single word about recognition and the things you mentioned!

  2. Assalamu Alaykum (peace be on you). Allah bless my brother and sister Somali Muslims for this example of welcome and protection for this small group of Christians Alhamdulillah (praise be to Allah) because It reminds Muslims around the world of the protection which Christians gave to a small group of the first Muslims 1400 years ago. May Allah help everyone follow these examples of goodness inshallah (Allah willng).
    Video: The love between Muslims and Christians 1400 years ago is like the love Somali Muslims are showing to Christians today https://www.facebook.com/LetsKnowOurGod/videos/767391953329238

    • It was quite amazing that this bishops, self apionted opstoles, they are running into somalia where the population overwhelmingly practice Islam the any other people on the face of earth, i don’t that somalis will except such illogical believe, they striving to take away from worshipping the one and only tue God to white man as their God and SAVOIR , any way these bishops don’t they aware of that 50 of the population of Europe today are atheist and the remaining are so called Christians, where you will definitely even they don’t even go to the church ,
      it’s realy amazing saturation where their home and childreen are leaving the Christian faith, and yet the are busy on Pure muslim people, what idiots

      For sure, with help of Almighty God You shall never and ever convinced such brilliant mind to your barbaric ideology of whorshiping humab being,

      Because with ur weapons and powers somali people deafted u 1900 ,

      • We don’t care what about the politicians those are merceneries those looking for small interests those have agreed to these missionaries in Hargeisa, if we are the local community whose are 100% muslim community, we wouldn’t recognise this church in Hargeisa and we don’t care about who have built it before in there.
        It’s obsolutely brohibited in our country if we are Somaliland people to build a church and we don’t care if the Christians allowed the community Muslims those live in their countries.
        We’re the right one, and we don’t let the wrong one to lead us in the wrong direction sending in our beloved people and land to missionaries for spreading Christianity in Somaliland.

      • They are not “self-appointed,” they have received holy orders from the successors to the apostles whom Jesus Christ (whom Muslims call “Isa Nabi”), the incarnate Word of God, appointed.

        It is Muhammad who self-appointed himself. Even your book, the Quran, says that Jesus’ Mother, whom you call Miriam, was a perfect woman. Perhaps Muslims should listen to what she has to say about her Son.

        I will continue praying for the conversion of your country to He who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” May the Holy Trinity, who is one God in Three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, lead your people to repentance and conversion, and salvation in Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, God who became Man and died for our sins, who is the only one through whom we find salvation and forgiveness of sins. And may God grant the Catholic Church in Somalia peace, growth, ever-growing conversions to Christ, and an abundance of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Amen.

  3. Somalia hmmmm! Very interesting, i was in hargeisa and Garowe they are two beyond safe compared to many cities here in US. Somalia is catching up.

  4. Don’t ever think this will work. Don’t you know that we’re 100% Muslim people and almost 99% practice their faith (Holly Quran) while people you think they are Christians in Europe more than 50% are atheist while the rest even don’t practice. Therefore, don’t ever dream it.

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