News Analysis

Somalia: Hidden Christians

The ruins of Mogadishu cathedral (Getty)

With the nation’s only church closed, the faithful must pray alone

Last year Somalia’s only church was forced to close. St Anthony of Padua in Hargeisa, in the autonomous region of Somaliland, had only just been reopened after being boarded up for nearly 30 years. Within a week of its opening ceremony, government officials forced it to shut again, saying it was creating divisions.

Bishop Giorgio Bertin of Djibouti, the apostolic administrator of Mogadishu, said Muslim leaders had raised fears that the re-opening might lead to other churches being built and the conversion of Muslims. “It is very sad,” he said. “It was based on the manipulation and misinterpretation of a public talk by one of our volunteers.”

Somalia has few Catholics. Diocesan records from 2004 suggest about 100, down from several thousand (mainly Italian Somalis) at independence in 1960. Most of these are in the capital, Mogadishu. A large number are expatriates and are served by two military chaplains. If they are Somali, they must keep their faith a secret.

Bishop Bertin explained that Somali Christians “pray individually or through the help of television or radio or internet”. They listen to Vatican Radio, which broadcasts Masses and meditations. Pastoral work is done secretly and silently, he says.

Somaliland seceded from Somalia 27 years ago but is not yet recognised as an independent state. It is stable, peaceful and has a functioning government ­– unlike the larger, war-torn Somalia, which descended into chaos after the 1991 overthrow of the dictator Siad Barre. Somalia is now the base of al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliate in East Africa. (Two years before the regime change, the city’s bishop, Pietro Salvatore Colombo, was shot dead while celebrating Mass. Its cathedral has been destroyed by militants and is now occupied by displaced people.)

The brief re-opening of St Anthony’s gave encouragement to Somalia’s Christians. A year on, Bishop Bertin says he hopes that, when peace is restored in Somalia, it will open once again.