Tuesday, July 06, 2004

SOMALIA: Church of the "Minority"

August 1996

By A. Modhiso

In spite of the intolerance from their Muslim counterparts, the Christians in Somalia are very hopeful that one day they shall proclaim their faith in Christ without risking their lives. The Catholic bishop of Mogadishu gives a briefing on the situation of the church in Somalia.

At the age of 50, Msgr.. Giorgio Bertin, the Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Mogadishu is a rare kind of bishop to find. He is a bishop in a country with hardly ten native Christians, let alone Catholics.

However, a glance at the involvement of the church in the development of Somalia, the soft spoken Mons. Bertin can be described as a bishop for all the Somali people. "Even though there are few Christians in Somalia, the Church is alive in practically every sphere of life in this country", comments Mons. Bertin. Through its humanitarian wing, Caritas, the Catholic Church, in conjunction with other Non-Governmental Organisations, is actively involved in the reconstruction of schools and hospitals among other development projects.

Asked why the Church does not involve itself in pastoral activities, Bertin said, "it is very difficult for the church to have pastoral work when it (Church) is not officially recognised."
"Being a Christian could mean death to a local Somali. To follow Christ means risking ones life in this predominantly country," adds the bishop.

Although the diocese of Mogadishu covers the whole geographical area of Somalia (637,657 square kilometres), the bishop's work is mainly concentrated in Somaliland, with a population of about one million people. Somaliland was proclaimed a new country in May 1991, when the rebel Somali National Movement (SNM) declared the secession of northern Somalia, naming its leaders, Abd Ar- Rahman Ali Tur as its first president. With Hargeisa as the capital, the new nation has however, failed to win international recognition.

Following the secession and subsequent inter-clan fighting that ensued, refugees poured across borders to neighbouring countries in their thousands. Ethiopia alone took upto 500,000 refugees while Kenya and Djibouti absorbed 300,000 and 15,000 respectively. Another 65,000 sailed across the Red Sea to Yemen. At home thousands of people died each day despite the massive relief effort that was gathering momentum. Trigger-happy soldiers begun to loot relief supplies and seize food for themselves.

The magnitude of the meyhem prompted the resignation of the UN official in charge of the relief effort, Mohammed Shanoun, citing lack of support from New York. The international body proved incapable of protecting the relief workers or supplies. Up till the present moment, neither Somalia nor the self- proclaimed Somaliland has enjoyed peace and calm. Even after the recent death of the famous warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed of the United Somali Congress (USC), inter-clan fighting has not ceased.

Asked why he thought Aideed's death would not mean sure peace Mons. Bertin said, "I've always told the Somalis never to demonize Aideed so much. The local people are also to blame for the mess of their country. It is not only the work of a single leader". Aideed died in early August of injuries received in a clan fighting in areas controlled by his forces. He has since been succeeded by his 32-year old son, Hussein Mohamed Aideed,who has vowed to reclaim more territory, dashing any hope for peace in the troubled horn of Africa country. According to Mons. Bertin, Somalia could be subdivided into twelve different areas controlled by different clans, an indication that escalation of clan animosity could mean more meyhem.

Although the new government in Somaliland led by Mohamed Ibrahim Igaal, the successor of Ali Tur, proclaims freedom of religion, in practice it is contrary.

"I can only say mass in individual houses of foreign NGO workers. Even if the Church in Hargeisa has been rebuilt, no local Christian would feel free to attend mass there", said the bishop. He also observes that Sharia law (Islamic laws) was to be adopted but this has not been implemented so far.

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