DJIBOUTI – Located on the Boulevard of the Republic opposite the residence of the French Embassy, the imposing Our Lady of the Good Shepherd Cathedral in Djibouti, the country’s same-named capital city, cannot be missed.
Its triumphant architecture contrasts with a Catholic community that is very modest in size and action.
Only a handful of Catholics, including five priests, five communities of religious sisters and a few faithful, often foreigners, live in the small nation of Djibouti, which is entirely based around its port and which has only been independent since 1977.
“The first missionaries arrived from France in 1885,” Bishop Giorgio Bertin recounts.
“Djibouti was Muslim territory and it has remained so. We need to face up to this reality.”
Catholics in Djibouti are tolerated on condition that they remain discreet.
“For this reason as well as to save money, we use the crypt for Mass,” adds Bishop Bertin. No doubt also in order to feel a little less alone.
During the week, a dozen people gather for daily Mass with the bishop, mostly religious sisters. Sometimes, the wife of a diplomat or a military officer, or a teacher or an official will also join.
On Sundays, there are some more Mass goers. And on religious feasts, the Church is filled with people from the whole country as well as soldiers in uniform, mostly French and Italians, who are the most assiduous of the western soldiers.
“Mission work takes place through the schools and the Caritas center,” Bishop Bertin explains.
With a dozen institutions including a kindergarten, a literacy center, and an apprenticeship center, the Church’s services are recognized for their quality and efficiency.
“Catholic schools are among the best in the country,” says Daher Ahmed Farah, the president of the Movement for Democratic Renewal and Development, the main opposition organization.
The most well known is the School of the Nativity, which is operated by Franciscan sisters and includes kindergarten, primary, and secondary levels and serves a section of the Djibouti elite.
In Ali Sabieh, Djibouti’s second city, all local leaders attended the Saint Louis primary school, the diocese’s school in the territory of the Issa, who are the largest ethnic group in the country along with the Afars.
“We are obliged to turn people away,” observes Simone Pire, the diocesan director of the Catholic institution.
The diocese opened a new school in 2012 in the shadow of the cathedral, the “Horn of Africa Elementary School”, which teaches in English and is operated by Sisters of St Joseph of Tarbes, who have come from Kenya. This comes as a surprise in this francophone country.
“Djibouti is surrounded by countries where the trading language is English so it is an effort to meet a need,” Pire explains.
While the schools are run by religious sisters, the apprenticeship center in Tadjourah, which is in Afar territory, is directed by a vigorous, young American priest.
Wearing a Roman collar and scout-style shorts, Father Mark runs the center with a team of teachers who work for the Djibouti national education system. It trains new mechanics, electricians, and carpenters for the region.
While most students are Muslim, the schools are also places where various communities live together, beginning with the Issas and the Afars, Djibouti’s two great historical rival groups.
In addition, there are Somalis, Yemenis, Ethiopians, and Eritreans, who have mostly fled either war or poverty. This companionship also changes their outlook on Catholics.
“We like them a lot,” says a Tadjourah student, who is the daughter of a former government minister. “However, it is a pity they are not Muslims.”
In fact, there are many prejudices against Christians. In the Afar language, the word for “slave” is the same as the word for “Christian”. Among the Issas, Christians are regarded as “impious” and “evildoers”.
However, in the schools, they are respected.
“It is not always easy,” notes the director of the Saint Louis school, “but living together is mostly peaceful”.
The government, which is regarded as authoritarian and is regularly targeted by human rights groups, takes a benevolent view of this small, discreet Church which provides services in the field of education.