By Cristina Uguccioni/ Djibouti
Accounts of peaceful co-existence between Christians and Muslims. Journey to the African country, where Bishop Giorgio Bertin and Anissa Andillahai, a teacher, give their insiders’ takes on relations between people of the two faiths, common projects and the spirit of co-operation.
Relations with Muslims are cordial, friendly and often fraternal. In recent decades, this small nation of just 900,000 inhabitants has enjoyed significant political stability, which has been beneficial to social cohesion. Compared its highly unstable neighbours Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia and Yemen, the quality of Muslim-Christian relations is undoubtedly better.
We are in Djibouti, capital of the homonymous African state and this is how the 69-year-old Franciscan Bishop of the diocese of Djibouti, Giorgio Bertin, begins his account. Bertin has been bishop of this diocese - the only Catholic diocese in the country – for 15 years and apostolic administrator of Mogadishu for over 25 years.
A small flock
The vast majority of Djibouti’s inhabitants are Sunni Muslims (96%) while Catholics amount to around 5000 and almost all of them are foreign: there are Ethiopians who fled their country and staff working at the military bases who live here with their families. Djibouti is situated on the southernmost point of the Red Sea, near the Arabian peninsula. It is a poor country and the state has welcomed in wealthy foreign powers that use it as a strategic base in Africa: over the years, France, Italy, the US, Germany, China and Japan have all built military bases here.
The diocese led by Fr. Bertin has 25 monks and five priests; in the capital there is a great cathedral and a church, while in the rest of the country there are four missionary stations, each of which has its own chapel. “The Muslim population knows us and respects us, especially for the activities of our local Caritas organisation and the 12 schools we run across the country, which are attended by a total of 3,500 students,” Fr. Bertin says. “We have kindergartens, elementary and middle schools directed by Catholic staff, while most of the teachers are Muslim; those who teach at elementary level are paid by the state, which is grateful for the work we do and has therefore dome to an agreement with us: it would in fact be very difficult for us to pay our staff’s wages by ourselves.”
In addition to these schools, the Church also runs a project called “School for All”, which gives children with disabilities an education. This is the first and only one of its kind in the country. The project also includes a professional centre and literacy centres that are attended by numerous young people who cannot attend the other schools either because their parents are too poor, or because of their age or because they lack the necessary documentation.
One of these centres is in Boulaos, a popular neighbourhood in Djibouti. The name of the centre, LEC, is an acronym for the French words Lire (Read), Ecrire (Write) and Compter (Count). One of the staff members here is 33-year-old Anissa Andillahai, a single Muslim woman who teaches French literacy. She says the following about her experience: “There is genuine affection between people here, I love working in this Catholic school because of the quality of my relationships with the other teachers, with the Catholic headmistress, the pupils and their parents. I am really grateful for the chance to listen and take care of young people living in poverty.” She adds: “My relations with Catholics are generally very good, there is a great deal of understanding and respect between us, like that which exists between brothers and sisters. The Djiboutians have great respect for the work and dedication of the Catholics, they esteem them because both religions profess their faith in one God.”
Imams get involved
Caritas Djibouti is small but very active. It has launched projects often involving imams and Muslim volunteering associations. “One of our first interventions was the one against female genital mutilation, a widespread practice that is deeply rooted in local culture,” says Bertin. “Fearing that our efforts could be seen as an attack on Islam, we explained our aim to a number of imams and some of them decided to join us in the fight against this execrable tradition. In 2007, after it had been going for more than 10 years, we stopped the project both because the state had passed laws introducing punishments for these mutilations and because in the meantime, the mentality had started to change and other organisations decided to deal with the issue.”
Working with local NGOs
Caritas is currently working hard to get children off the street and assist the ill who are guaranteed first aid and help – including economic help – to get treatment. For years, it has also sponsored a programme to combat drought: “Rain is gold in Djibouti, so we have installed some tanks to collect rainwater,” says Bertin. “Since we are low on staff, we work alongside Muslim volunteers from some local NGOs, who were keen to help out, as was the case some years ago, when we introduced a programme to teach people how to fish. Our alliance with these NGOs involves hard work and is yielding very satisfactory results. The collaborations between Christian and Muslim military chaplains.”
The hardship of poor Christians
Bertin adds: “Wafts of fundamentalism have reached Djibouti too in recent years but as yet they have not had a direct effect on the daily lives of Christians and Muslims, who continue to live together in peace. Poorer Christians have complained about some objective difficulties: for example, it’s harder for them to find work (here unemployment rates are high), while well-off Christians are held in higher regard and are more respected. Even in this country, where the state guarantees freedom of worship and equality among citizens, there is a constant need to uphold respect and attention towards the weak (who are easily taken advantage of).”
After the Charlie Hebdo attack
Out the various occasions she could think of when the capacity for Christians and Muslims to forge an alliance really shone through, Bertin wished to highlight one in particular: “After the terrorist attack against satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in 2015, not only the state but the entire population thoroughly condemned the incident. We organised a prayer gathering in our cathedral which was full to the brim with people that evening, half of them were Muslim. It was a precious moment of fraternity that saw us united in our condemnation of the use of violence in the name of God.”
Together to offer others hope
Truly religious people (of different religions), living together in peace, make a decisive contribution to the human community, Bertin underlines: “Indeed, they show that a more fraternal and just world is not an impossible dream: it is possible. When lived authentically, religions are a precious asset to society: they sustain the hopes of all people, even those who do not have a faith.”
Anissa Andillahai concluded by saying: “I think faithful of different religions who live together in harmony, can offer the world peace, happiness and joy, stimulating progress and helping to fight the poison of terrorism, massacres and hatred against humanity”.