It is illogic to welcome expatriates and other foreigners in our country while demanding that they become closet worshippers”
By: Yusuf M Hasan
Somaliland- A fierce debate touching on the very issue of religion is top among Somaliland citizens more so the capital, Hargeisa.
The debate in this predominantly Muslim country rose following a seemingly innocent but not regular announcement that St Anthony Padua the oldest church in Somaliland is to officially open doors to adherents of the Catholic faith resident in Hargeisa.
The announcement by Ms Marriane Vechionne a volunteer at a local hospital in the capital city made during a public function at a local university participated by government officials and members of the public was followed by the actual event at the church witness by senior government officials but under heavy security.
“Your government that is seeking recognition has seen the importance of exercising freedom of worship and the reopening of this church” Ms Vechionne who oversaw the reopening told guests and journalists.
With such attention and high level witness to the official reopening of the St Anthony Catholic Church after 30 years the off-guard caught public devoid of factual information from the administration thence resulted in the up to now raging debate
Accordingly rumours started circulating to the effect that the government had legalized Christian evangelization, which is not only taboo in Somaliland but every other Muslim country worldwide.
The alleged licensor, that is the administration, owing to the volatile nature of the issue did not waste time in reacting with factual information as per the real circumstances of the church in Hargeisa where structures for Christian worship have existed for decades, though fully revived just recently initially with the rehabilitation of the Catholic church adjacent to the high court.
• Read: Archbishop Of Djibouti Consecrates the St Anthony Padua Church in Hargeisa
In a bid to quell the minister of religious affairs Sheikh Khalil Abdilahi Ahmed issued a statement in which the government’s position and constitutional dictates were divulged, initially informing that “The government of the Republic of Somaliland has no objection to the reopening of church that already exist in the country”
Adding that ” The Somaliland constitution which is the supreme authority in the land is based on Islam” while stressing on the fact that the constitution does not allow promotion of any other religion excerpt Islam nor does the same document allow Somaliland citizens who are predominately Muslims to convert to other religions”
According to the religious affairs Minister the Somaliland constitution as well as Islamic sharia law allows foreigners to work in the country and for non Muslims to practice their religion privately.
Having clarified on the alleged construction of new church as well Islamic tenets guiding the religious conduct of non Muslims in a Muslim country, minister Sheikh Khalil went on to explain that Ms Marianne Vechionne had erred in announcing that the Government had issued a license for construction of a new church rather than the truth being “only the reopening of an existing one”
In the same breathe the religious affairs minister did not mince words as he warned the foreign woman in the country as a volunteer of consequences if she persists in giving false information, especially as pertains the very volatile issue of religion.
In Somaliland which is home to many foreigners working as expatriates for not only international multi-lateral and non governmental organizations and local ones but for the public and private sector opinion on their right to worship is divided among the citizenry.
Though devoid of a poll it is difficult to fathom majority, some argue that foreigners should be given freedom to practice their religion privately while those in the opposite are afraid that once this is allowed foreigners could go beyond private worship to evangelization.
Despite the governments clarification the debate on the pros and cons of the church refuse to go away and opinion continues to be divergent though it is apparently now clear that reopening of already existing and not construction of new churches is legal as per the Somaliland constitution and Islamic Sharia laws.
Thence the re- opening of the church of St Antony Padua after 27 years which signaled a new chapter for the tiny Christian community in Somaliland is pursuant to the country’s constitution that enshrines freedom of belief to all, while recognizing Islam as the official religion.
Freedom of Belief is enshrined through article 33 of the Somaliland constitution which stipulates that
Quote- Every person shall have the right to freedom of belief, and shall not be compelled to adopt another belief. Islamic Sharia does not accept that a Muslim person can renounce his beliefs.Unquote
Read more on the The Rights of the Individual, Fundamental Freedoms and the Duties of the Citizen granted by the constitution of Somaliland
As for the raging debate as pertains the church in Hargeisa , a prominent cleric Sheikh Osman Ali Hussein is very categoric that constitutional dictates or not it is against Islamic laws to construct a new church in town or city established by Muslims like Hargeisa.
The cleric aired his views during an interview with Geeska Afrka held in Hargeisa where religious affairs Minister Sheikh Khalil and MP Mohamed Salah Egge also participated.
According to sheikh Osman the only instances in which a new church structure can erected in a muslim dominate city or town can only be actualized if the venue, town is a conquered one, that is controlled by Muslims as a result of war, and authority to construct one must be granted.
The cleric who acknowledged on the globalization factor that may lead to imperatives of keeping up with or aligning with international norms, cautioning the government against acts that might be contrary to Islamic tenets on which the country’s foundation are built on.
In conclusion Sheikh Osman Ali Hussein said that the government which is responsible for proper conduct of religious affairs should be respected therefore urging citizens not to undertake hasty decisions of taking to tue streets in demonstrations .
Upon reiterating his initial statement to the fact that the St Anthony Padua Catholic church was not a new construction but one existing for decades the Somaliland minister of religious affairs also urged citizens to respect the authority of their democratically elected administration.
“It is illogic to welcome expatriates and other foreigners in our country while demanding that they become closet worshippers, that is meeting and worshipping in secrecy” said minister Khalil adding that decision to permit reopening of the church emanated from this thinking.
Accordingly “Rather than having closet worshippers in our country why not allow non Muslims meet at this church” said minister Shiekh Khalil while urging citizens to keep away from acts that might lead to unrest thence Mar the image of a peaceful nation Somaliland has attained internationally.
As per MP Mohamed Salah Egge, the issue of the church needs no debate nor be made controversial since it has been ascertained that both the Somaliland constitution and Islamic sharia law facilitate for such non Muslim places of worship.
“The matter was recently raised in the house of representatives and members were unanimous that the reopening of the Catholic church in Hargeisa was legal” said the MP while urging citizens to maintain their calm as their elected representatives are satisfied that the matter, feared by most, of evangelization does not exist.
“While ascertaining that the church reopening conforms to both national and Islamic laws I also take this opportunity to commend citizens for be vigilant against anything that might impinge on Islam,Mr he country’ national religion
Though it is yet to be verified the government is said to have deported Me Marriane Vechionne whose announcement is behind the tensions in the country.
So is the Church in Hargeisa meant for worship or evangelization?
Backed by the Constitution and Islamic laws the government of Somaliland has authority of sanctioning the reopening of existing churches but not construction of new ones.
On the other hand though the same constitution and religious laws facilitate for worship by non Muslims it is against the said laws for propagation of any other religion apart from Islam in all of the Republic of Somaliland.