There are no longer any priests left to celebrate mass in the country
After 24 years of civil war, the Somali government is unable to guarantee security and stop the violence of the Islamic Courts. A Somali policeman walks past a bar in Mogadishu that was gutted by a bomb.
Yusuf (the name is fictional), is a Catholic from Mogadishu. One of about 30 locals who has stayed behind in the Somali capital which has frequently been the scene of fundamentalist terror attacks.
This year, the government has forbidden Christmas and New Year celebrations but for the meagre number of “anonymous” Christians left, this has not changed their situation one bit: for years they have been lacking priests and have been unable to attend mass and receive the sacraments.
Officially, they do not exist, as Christians. They were “banned” from celebrating Christmas and Easter even before the government’s latest announcement. There are no priests who can visit faithful and celebrate secretly with them in their homes, without attracting attention.
Foreign missionaries cannot do this: it would mean putting their own lives at risk, not to mention the lives of those hosting them. And so, the religious identity of the few Christian families that have stayed behind remains secret, only the neighbours know. “This year too, I returned to Mogadishu to celebrate the Christmas masses, but the celebrations took place inside the United Nations and African Union compound, near the airport,” Mgr. Giorgio Bertin, Bishop of Gibuti and apostolic administrator of Mogadishu, tells Italian newspaper La Stampa.
“There, I celebrated one mass in Italian and English for Italian-European troops and civilians and another one in French and English for the group of soldiers from Burundi and Uganda. I wasn’t able to meet the few remaining Christians in the city. I managed to meet them during the 1990’s and celebrate mass for them. But since then it has not been possible.” THE GOVERNMENT BAN
According to Bishop Bertin, the announcement regarding the ban on Christian celebrations has the distinct feeling of an act of propaganda aimed at calming al-Shabaab fundamentalists, “but it also occurred to me that it could be a warning for Somalis living in Europe or the US, who come back to Somalia for the holidays: they may have got into the habit of exchanging Christmas gestures”.
Bishop Bertin does not wish to disclose too much about the thirty or so Christians still living in Mogadishu. He admits they do exist and that he met them briefly in August 2013, at a hotel in the city, just before setting off for Gibuti. He keeps in touch with them by phone and e-mail. “The local population is not fanatically anti-Christian. What is lacking is a State that guarantees protection, order and respect for the law. Everything has been destroyed by 24 years of civil war.”
The main concern harboured by Mogadishu’s “anonymous” Christians is not about freedom of worship but about survival. “They don’t have the sacraments, they watch some ceremonies on TV and take part in spiritual communion. But their families, like many others in the country, are in need of material aid. Jobs and food are lacking. The only action the Catholic Church is involved in in the country, is linked to Caritas. And naturally, we help everyone, no matter which ethnic or religious group they belong to.” THE ISLAMIC COURTS
After 2000, when the Islamic Courts were born, the last of the remaining missionaries had to leave the country. The last ones left after the death of Sister Leonella Sgorbati, a Consolata missionary who was killed in September 2006, in the days when tensions were running extremely high as a result of the manipulation of the words Benedict XVI pronounced in his Regensburg speech.
The list of Italian missionaries and alay volunteers who were killed in the country is long: Mogadishu’s last resident bishop was Salvatore Colombo, who was murdered in 1989. Graziella Fumagalli and Annalena Tonelli were killed in Somalia in 1995 and 2003 respectively. “We need to remain hopeful that the will of the majority of the population will prevail,” Bishop Bertin concluded. “The majority are not fundamentalists and have nothing to do with this political Islam that has been radicalised by al-Shabaab.”
About a week ago, in Kenya, just a short distance from the Kenyan-Somali border, some Muslims who were travelling on a bus, stood up to a group of al-Shabaab terrorists, refusing to be separated from their fellow passengers who were Christians. In doing so, they managed to protect them, preventing a massacre. A small yet great sign of hope.