Interview with Maltese Bishop Allesandro of Garissa, Kenya
Bishop Joseph Alessandro is the Catholic Bishop of Garissa, Kenya. He is Maltese, and as a Franciscan missionary in the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, has been working in Kenya for the past 14 years In this interview with ACN, he shares his pastoral experience as a missionary in Kenya, the current situation in Garissa after years of terrorist attacks by Al-Shabab and how the Church is responding to the situation.
Interview by ACN Malta.
Your Excellency, you have been working as a missionary in Kenya for many years. Can you tell us about your pastoral work and experience?
Yes, first of all thank you for giving me this opportunity to share what the Church is doing in Kenya, particularly in the Diocese of Garissa.
I have been in Kenya for about 14 years, in two separate periods. I have been the ordinary Bishop there since 2015, five years now. The work in the Diocese is something particular because the Diocese, territory wise, is the largest Diocese in Kenya 143,000km2 but the faithful are few because it’s a semi-desert, very close to Somalia on the Eastern part, and another part to Ethiopia.
Catholics are very few as they mostly come from the upcountry because of work; some are government employees, civil servants, teachers, nurses, doctors and a few business people. Even though the Catholics are very few, we still try to cater for them as much as we can. In the Diocese there are 7 parishes, very much scattered one from another. Besides the distance the road is not good and it’s not safe especially this time we receive news that there had been attacks on the road by these terrorist groups. We try to follow the faithful up in their faith, to prepare them for Sacraments as some of them who come to work in our part of the country are not baptised. We also prepare their children for baptism and confirmation and first Holy Communion, and there are some couples who haven’t yet blessed their wedding, we try also to follow them up with catechism and last year we had some couples who had their wedding blessed. It was a big event in the Diocese. That’s the pastoral work we are doing, then we have the other aspect, some people call it social work, I prefer to call it charity work.
How would you describe the faith of these few Catholics?
Their faith is very strong, although they have challenges because it’s a predominantly Muslim environment. Sometimes when these attacks happen, the victims are always upcountry people who are Christians, not only Catholics, but also other Christians. This could sometimes instil fear in them especially when we have feasts of big gatherings. We also find help from the government, when we inform them about our activities, they provide us with security. On Sundays during Masses there is also the security so we try to create a safe environment for the faithful.
Garissa brings to mind the deadly terrorist attack on the university and the activities of Al-Shabab. Can you give us a picture of the current situation?
Yes, this event happened about 5 years ago, it was a very sad event. If I remember well, there were about 148 students who lost their lives. They were all Christians from various denominations. It was really a shock to the whole nation especially to the Church in Garissa because there were Catholics amongst them whom we knew used to come to our Church on Sundays. I used to go to the university campus to celebrate Mass and hear confessions. I admired them so much because they were very active. In fact when the attack happened at the university, some international reporters came to our church the following Sunday, it was Easter, and they interviewed some people and asked them, ‘Aren’t you afraid to come to church?’, they said ‘Yes, we are afraid but if we have to die, it’s better to die in the Church than on the street’.
Although we had that experience we thank God that now things came back almost to normal, even though there are still some sporadic attacks from these terrorist groups in our Diocese. These last 2 months there have been about 16 of these incidents and attacks, about 60 people lost their lives because of these attacks.
How is the Church responding to this situation?
We try to create a dialogue first of all with the local people. It’s not all that easy with the Muslims but we have a team made up of religious leaders – Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, Methodists and some others and we meet regularly so that we try to create a bond amongst ourselves and if we foresee something that is not going the right way, we discuss it to prevent. When things happen, since we have already this bond, we try to keep our people calm telling them that things happened but we have to go forward, these are extremists, not everyone is like that, so we try to, on our side educate our people to make difference between the terrorists and those who are not terrorists, even though they are Muslims, because there are good Muslims also. On the other side the Muslims try to tell their people that the Christians are their brothers although there are differences but we have to live together as brothers and sisters. I think we are trying to do our best.
How is ACN helping your Diocese in its mission work?
Yes, ACN has been very helpful. Once I wrote to Germany asking for some Mass Stipends, they were very kind, they sent us and we sent them back the report with the photos of our priests celebrating Mass. Recently we asked also for a vehicle for one of the priests in charge of the education office of the whole Diocese. So, besides of his Pastoral work in the Parish, he’s also responsible for education in the Diocese. He told me that he needs something to travel to keep in touch with our Catholic schools which is very important in that environment. They wrote a project. I endorsed it with a recommendation letter. Last week I received a reply that they had considered our request and that we are going to continue to see exactly in which way they will be helping us. For this I am very grateful because it’s a great help for us. We have 5 primary schools and 8 nursery or kindergartens schools and even though we are in a Muslim environment, many of the Muslims prefer to send their children to our Catholic schools.
Thank you ACN for your assistance which you have already given to the Diocese of Garissa and even for this project that we are still dealing about. Thank you very much.
ACN relies mostly on the generosity of Maltese and Gozitan benefactors to support Missionaries like you who are abroad doing the work of God in countries where it is difficult to practice the faith. What message do you have for our benefactors?
It’s true that the Church is Universal and that’s the beauty of the Church. We not only profess the same faith but we try to assist each other. There are churches who are in need materially so other churches will assist them. In return, the churches who will be assisting materially, are in need of priests, because for instance the number of priests in Europe and in the West is going down, some priests from these countries that had received this assistance can be sent on mission. This is an interchange, so the Church is very alive and active in this way. I appreciate a lot the benefactors. If it wasn’t for their assistance I think the Church wouldn’t be in this moment, at the stage where it is now because we need structures, not only for schools, but even for dispensaries and where to accommodate the religious communities, the Sisters, and even the priests and then to sustain them. Everyone has something to give and everyone needs something to receive. We, as priests, and even the lay people should try to live together assisting one another.