Comoros, The Catholic Church in the

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The Comoros, which encompasses the islands of Grande Comore, Anjouan, Mayotte and Mohéli, is a group of volcanic islands located in the Indian Ocean 190 miles off the east coast of Africa between Mozambique and Madagascar. The islands, which range in terrain from steep mountains to rolling hills, are visited by cyclones during the rainy season which lasts from November to April. Grande Comoro, which houses the seat of government, is heavily forested, and produces much of the vanilla, cloves, coconuts, bananas and cassava which are the region's main agricultural products. A live volcano, Le Kartala, is also located on the island. An overseas territory of France until 1975, Comoros became divided politically when the island of Mayotte voted to retain ties to France. The remaining three islands gained independence as the Federal Islamic Republic of Comoros. More than half of all Comorians resided on the island of Grande Comore; by 2000 less that half the population was literate. One of the world's poorest countries, Comoros was heavily dependent on foreign aid.

History. The Arabs, who arrived in the Comoros in the 14th century, established long-lasting dominance over the region, despite the appearance of Africans, Indonesians and Portuguese explorers in the 16th century. In 1843 the French began their control when they established a protectorate over Mayotte; they extended it to the other three islands in 1886. From 1912 until 1947 when they became a French overseas territory, the colonies were administered from Madagascar. Grande Comore, Anjouan and Mohéli gained political autonomy in 1960, and declared independence on July 6, 1975. At that point the islands became politically divided; Mayotte, with a Christian majority, voted to remain an overseas territory of France. Under the constitution dated October 6, 1976, religious freedom was granted to all Comorians.

Following independence, the region was rocked by a series of 19 military governments and the economy weakened due to a decline in exports. By the late 1990s the political situation had deteriorated still further and in August of 1997 Anjouan and Mohéli both declared independence and requested a return to French rule, which France declined. The government in Grande Comoro was overthrown by the Comoro Army, and in April of 1999 General Azaly Assoumani took control of the government.

In October a new constitution was promulgated under which the right of Christians to practice their faith was curtailed. By 2000 Anjouan had not yet agreed to return to the Comoros, and the Organization of African Unity began efforts to bring about a resolution to the political strife in the region.

The Comoros islands were made part of the prefecture apostolic of the Little Malagasy Islands (created in 1848), and were entrusted first to the Jesuits, then to the Holy Ghost Fathers in 1879. In 1901 the islands became part of the vicariate apostolic of Northern Madagascar, which was advanced to a prefecture in 1938, and was created the diocese of Ambanja, Madagascar, a suffragan of Diego Suarez, in 1955. During the mid-20th century two mission stations existed on the Comoros to tend to the region's 800 Catholics, and an apostolic administration was established at the time of Mayotte's independence. By 2000 there were two religious priests tending to the region's small Catholic population, the center of the faith a church in the capital city of Moroni. These priests were aided in their efforts by approximately ten members of religious orders. In February of 1998 a second church, located on Anjouan, was burned by arsonists. Because of the restrictions on the Church, which included a ban on possessing Christian printed materials, charges of "anti-Islamic activity" were leveled against several Catholics engaged in practicing their faith. Christians of all faiths were discriminated against in employment and elsewhere, and in some cases were publicly blacklisted and harassed. Despite such repression, Comoros celebrated 16 baptisms in 1999.

Bibliography: Bilan du Monde.

[j. bouchaud/eds.]