Stories of the faithful of the two religions living together. The memory of attacks by Al-Shabbab militants, the return to calm, interreligious dialogue, and the works of the Church in an interview with Bishop Joseph Alessandro.
The diocese of Garissa in Northeast Kenya, on the border with Somalia, extends for 145 thousand square kilometers – a third of the country. A million people live there, ninety-eight percent of which profess the Islamic faith. There are about eight thousands Catholics (0.8% of the population), mostly from other parts of Kenya. There are seven parishes, fifteen priests, and four communities of religious. In recent years the region has unfortunately been the target of many attacks by the Somali militants of Al-Shabbab. The worst was in April 2015 when the terrorists attacked Garissa University and took many people hostage. They let the Muslims go and killed the young Christians. There were 148 victims; 147 students and one security guard.
The bishop of the diocese is Fr. Joseph Alessandro, seventy-three years old, from Malta, and a member of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin. Arriving in Kenya for the first time in 1989, he was a victim of an ambush in 1993. A group of terrorists (the ‘Shifta’) stopped him while he was driving his car. He was shot and robbed. After many surgeries in England, his confreres elected him provincial superior during his convalescence in Malta. When his term was finished, he asked to return to Kenya, to the area of Garissa where the priests were few and the bishop, himself in poor health, had need of assistance. Appointed coadjutor bishop in 2012, Fr. Alessandro has guided the diocese since 2015. In this dialogue with Vatican Insider he speaks on the life of the diocese and the quality of the relationship between Christians and Muslims.
What is the current situation in Garissa?
“Calm has returned, peace. After the attack at the University many Christians preferred to leave the city and go to their home villages or move to a nearby county and come to Garissa for the work day. Now they have returned to the city, which is safe because the government has strengthened the presence of the police, which still guards even the churches. Recently the Somali Al-Shabbab militants have taken aim at civilians but the police are deployed on the borders with Somalia. The University has reopened and a good number of Catholic young people are attending it. We serve them by organizing meetings for prayer and celebrations of the Eucharist. The attack on the University was terrible and struck the Christians in particular. They have been targeted in the past as well. Nevertheless, these terrorists do not vent their rage only at Christians; in fact, in Somalia they continue to carry out attacks in places where there are no Christians. In Kenya their main goal is to force the government to withdraw the troops sent into Somalia to combat them.”
In the past, how was the relationship between Christians and Muslims in the region?
“The relations were good. Not, on the other hand, with the government. Before independence from the English (1963), most of the territory of Garissa was part of Somalia. Then these rather closed Somali tribes became part of Kenya and it was therefore divided. This has caused many problems; in our territory the members of these tribes regard themselves as Somali citizens and often have family members across the border. For a certain period the Shifta terrorists were active in violent action (aggression, robbery). They were not, however, as radical and violent as Al-Shabbab.”
What do the Muslims living in the territory of Garissa think of al-Shabbab?
“Here the Muslims, who belong to certain tribes, two of which are very open toward Christians, are friendly and peaceful. I believe that Islam is a religion of peace; it does not support terrorists. Some, however, are afraid to condemn this group openly either because their fear reprisals against family members in Somalia or because they belong to the same tribes as the terrorists and do not want to be judged as traitors. These Muslims suffer in silence; they fear the attacks, but at the same time, they do not want to go to the police. However, recently the army has been able to count on the cooperation of some Muslims. The Catholic Church is looked upon with sympathy and admiration by the Muslims for the many social works it has started. More than once it has happened that a Muslim will say to us priests: ‘It’s too bad – because you are Christians – that you have to go to hell, you are so good!’”
What social projects have been promoted in the diocese?
“Beyond pastoral care, we have some clinics, a hospital, a rehabilitation center for disabled children, an orphanage for girls, and some elementary schools. Five groups for the promotion of women have been started and also a regular distribution of food and basic goods for the most needy. Each person is a creature of God, has an inviolable dignity, and is to be loved and respected. This is what we hope to communicate by means of our social projects, which are meant for the whole population. Both Christian and Muslim children attend the schools, for example. We are convinced that a Catholic educational institution plays a decisive role in the building up of a cohesive and peaceful society. The Muslim parents trust and respect us. They say that they are happy to send their children to our schools. We teach them gospel values – which are universal – such as love of neighbor, justice, peace, forgiveness. The children learn these values. Studying and playing together, they learn to love each other, to live together, and to not consider someone who belongs to another tribe or religion as an adversary. We plant seeds, confident that the fruit will come.”
What forms does interreligious dialogue take in your diocese?
“We have always promoted interreligious dialogue with various initiatives. Some years ago the bishops’ conference of the USA financed a biennial program of dialogue with regular meetings in individual parishes among groups of women, young people, adults, and religious authorities. The goal was to learn to know one another and to face up to and avoid possible conflicts. The young people also organized competitive sports among themselves. At this point the funding has ended but the groups continue to meet. And the results are very encouraging. For example, recently in one parish an interreligious group of women succeeded in putting an end to a conflict that was about to blow up among their husbands. Personally, I have had encounters, above all those of prayer, with local imams. Some of them, after the attack at the University, came to the cathedral – sincerely sorrowful – to give condolences and to apologize for what had happened.”
How would you describe the faith of the Catholics of Garissa?
“Unclouded, solid. The attack at the University was on Holy Thursday. On Friday and Saturday the cathedral was almost deserted but on Easter Sunday it was full. And there were many children, because we were having baptisms. I remember that the foreign journalists who had come to the city because of the attack were very surprised to see such a crowd of the faithful. Now, as I said, calm has returned. Catholics are not afraid to wear the rosary around their necks or to put on a shirt with an image of Jesus or Mary. Sure, they fear attacks, but they continue to come to church and say, ‘If we have to die it’s better that it happen here, in the house of the Lord.’ The young people say it too. We priests support the people and encourage them to pray. Prayer is very strong against evil. I have great confidence in the Holy Spirit, in his intervention: It is He who guides the Church. In the city of Mandera, in the most northern part of the diocese, there is no priest permanently present for reasons of security. But the faithful continue to live steadfastly their life of faith. When I go periodically to meet them I see the work of the Holy Spirit. Christ said that he would be with us all days even to the end of time; I say this often to our faithful and they understand it.”
Are there any signs that look forward to improved relations between Christians and Muslims?
“I am confident, mostly for two reasons. Above all the government is working hard to improve the infrastructure of the area (roads, water and power networks) and to help this region to develop and open itself up more. Beyond this there is a lot being done to support young people who want to study and find work. Education is one for our pillars of the government’s action. The young people who begin to move for work or to attend universities in other parts of Kenya learn to encounter those of other tribes, to know different ways of life. This contributes to changing mentalities, to defeating that form of insularity that, at times, has been an obstacle to living together in this region. We are attentive to these young people, we accompany and support them – also economically – in their studies. Above all I am confident because I know that God defeats evil and does not abandon any of his children. With his help, we do our best to sow the good seed of the Gospel and then we leave the future in His hands. Perhaps we don’t get a glimpse of the fruits of our labor right away, but this is all right. The future generations will see them. We ask our brothers and sisters in the faith all over the world to support our communities in prayer that we may continue to announce the Gospel with our lives.”