Only Catholic church forced to close
Just one week after being officially reopened, the only Catholic Church in Somaliland has been forced to close again due to “public pressure”, A ceremony attended by expatriates and ministers on 29 July marked the reopening of the restored Catholic church of St Anthony of Padua, which had been closed for three decades. The church is located in the Shaab area of the region’s capital, Hargeisa, and is one of a number of churches built 70 years ago during British rule.
A few days after the opening, Sheikh Khalil Abdullahi – the self-declared state’s Religious Affairs Minister – issued a statement confirming that “Contrary to recent reports, there is no new church in Hargeisa.” He added, “Our government will not allow any new church to be built in Somaliland.”
Sheikh Khalil said reopening the church had caused “a lot of division” which was not in Somaliland’s interest. Many of the country’s religious leaders had denounced the reopening, arguing that the church is part of a broader plan to convert the self-declared state to Christianity.
At a press conference on 8 August, Sheikh Khalil announced: “The government has decided to respect the wishes of the people and their religious leaders and keep the church closed as it has been for the past 30 years.”. Somaliland’s constitution and Sharia law, Khalil confirmed, allow foreigners to work in Somaliland and “practice their religion in private.”
Bishop Giorgio Bertin, the apostolic administrator of Mogadishu, capital of Somalia, and bishop of Djibouti, consecrated the church late last year. He said that the church closed because of the danger Christians face in the Muslim-majority country and that they would be in danger if identified. The majority of Christians in Somaliland are expats, with a smaller number being Ethiopian immigrants.
The bishop, who works from neighboring Djibouti, said Somaliland is in practice fairly free from control by the provisional Somali government in Mogadishu where practicing Christianity is forbidden.
“There is no possible way of having a presence in Mogadishu,” he told charity Aid to the Church in Need, adding that Catholics in Somalia would be in danger if they were identified. “Not many people come to Mass – ten at most. But nonetheless, it is important.” All pastoral work is done secretly, he said, adding: “Even if it has to be silent, it is better to be there than not to be there.”
Somaliland is not officially recognized as a sovereign state, but it has achieved relative stability since it declared independence in 1991 from Somalia.