A silent but active Church

Bound by Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Djibouti, where religion is concerned, religion, can be more closely compared to the first of them. Islam is indicated as the State religion in the constitution, and 94% of its inhabitants are Sunni Muslims, with the remaining 6% constituted mainly of foreign-born citizens and expatriates.

Despite long historic ties with Ethiopia (the slaves traded by Arab and Somali inhabitants of the area often included Ethiopian Christians), Christianity never made big inroads in present-day Djibouti. Protestants denominations are indeed present in the country, and also an Ethiopian Orthodox community, but the latter it is mostly composed by migrant workers, who are not involved in evangelization.
On the other hand, it was only in 1862 that Catholic missionaries set foot in Djibouti, following the French who bought land from the sultan of Tadjourah and little more than a century later, in 1964 – just thirteen years prior to independence – the current cathedral was built and then consecrated by Catholic cardinal Eugene Tisserant. At present Catholics – less than 5.000 in all – are mostly found among Western military and expats or immigrants from other parts of Francophone Africa, but a few conversions of locals still occur, according to the latest US State Department report on religious freedom. However, their number is little because of customs and societal norms discouraging such a practice, although it is not explicitly forbidden by law. Some converts have in fact denounced episodes of physical abuses and discrimination in employment and education, suffered at the hands of members of their former faith community. Sporadic vandalism on Christian symbols and church properties were also reported, even if the Constitution guarantees equality before the law to all citizens.

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Proselytizing is another issue on which laws and societal practices are at odds: despite allowing missionaries to receive visas and operate in the country (the bishop himself is an Italian capuchin, Mgr. Giorgio Bertin) and, in some cases, even to sell religious books and pamphlets, the government encourages such activities on private properties and not in public. As a result, non-Muslim communities generally refrained from proselytizing and – with respect to Catholic Christians – engaged in what can be described as a social testimony through humanitarian and development projects. The several missionary orders which have a presence in the country (Missionaries of Charity, Franciscans, Consolata missionaries, Sisters of the Presentation of Mary, Lasallian brothers) are mostly involved in assisting migrants and refugees and in running hospitals and schools, also outside the capital and in the rural areas. Such an effort has been publicly lauded by President Guelleh himself when visiting a Catholic learning institution, and as a consequence, the government also pays the salaries of some teachers. Catholic schools are attended by both Christian and Muslim pupils, but no religion classes are held.

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Most of the charitable, humanitarian and social programs of the Church are run under the umbrella of Caritas Djibouti, founded in 1978, which, in almost thirty years has been involved in diverse activities, ranging from poverty alleviation to anti-drought programs. Due to climate change, in fact, most stock breeders, already confronted with extreme environmental conditions, have lost most of their wealth in recurring droughts: according to a recent survey by Caritas itself, the losses amount to 70% of the households’ livestock and one in two families doesn’t have enough food to meet its everyday needs. The Church is on the side of those poor, as well as of street children and other vulnerable categories such as women. The advocacy action regarding their status and treatment, however, as any other of that kind, has to be carried out carefully. Public criticism, in fact, can even lead to a visa suspension for foreigners: however, leveraging the reputation gained from social action, the Church has in many cases been able to voice its concern to the relevant authorities. Catholic missionaries, humanitarians and volunteers are facilitated in their social works by the local version of Islam, which, as in most parts of Africa, has until recently been spared  from the contagion of extremism. More radical inclinations have manifested themselves in recent years, but until now they have had no sensible effect on Christian presence and activities. (Y.L.)







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