Djibouti, The Catholic Church in

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The Republic of Djibouti is located in East Africa and borders Eritrea on its north, the Gulf of Aden on its east, Somalia on its southeast and Ethiopia on its south and west. Located in the Great Rift Valley, the region is predominately desert, with a harsh and dry climate; earthquakes, drought and flash floods are not uncommon. With little agriculture and few natural resources, Djibouti derives much of its income from its status as a free trade zone and its location near one of the world's major shipping lanes. Djibouti City is part of a major trade route to Ethiopia and surrounding nations. Chief exports include hides and cattle raised by the region's nomadic population, as well as salt. Djibouti has been heavily reliant upon foreign aid, and its economy burdened by heavy debt repayments. Forty percent of the population was unemployed in 2000.

Formerly known as the French Territory of the Afars and Issas, a part of Somaliland, Djibouti was an overseas territory of the French Republic until 1977 when it became the last of those territories to gain independence. The population is predominately Somali and includes Issa, Gadaboursi, Issaq, Afar and Arabs, as well as Europeans, many of whom are French military personnel and their families.

History. Part of the Ethiopian Empire, the region was Christianized until the Arab invasion in 1200. A French protectorate was established near the coastal city of Obock in 1884, and the seat of the colonial government was later transferred to Djibouti. Modern evangelization began late in the 19th century by Capuchins, to whom the mission remained entrusted through the 20th century. As part of Somaliland, Djibouti was originally part of the Vicariate Apostolic of Galla (erected in 1846). After 1914 it fell under the Prefecture Apostolic of Djibouti, which became a diocese directly subject to the Holy See in 1955. Bishop George Perron OFM, a Capuchin, administers the affairs of the diocese.

A railroad constructed between Djibouti and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, during World War I expedited trade through the country's ports and boosted its economy. The region became a territory in the French Union in 1946, and was granted membership in the French Community as the Territory of the Afars and Issas in 1958. Djibouti was granted political independence on June 27, 1977, with Islam as the state religion. Armed fighting erupted in the west in 1991, sparked by Afars desire for independence and disagreements over the nation's constitution. Government reprisals were harsh, but ultimately a ceasefire was called and constitutional reforms enacted in 1992. Diplomatic relations were established with the Vatican in May of 2000.

Famine and regional wars negatively affected the nation for much of the late 20th century as refugees from neighboring Somalia and Ethiopia settled in Djibouti and put stresses upon its fragile economy. In 1981 alone the country gave refuge to over 50,000 Ethiopians fleeing the fighting in the Ethiopian province of the Ogaden; the continued stream of refugees prompted calls for humanitarian support from both the Holy See and the region's papal nuncios. In 2000 Djibouti was home to 12,000 Catholics, the majority of whom lived in the capital city. The country's five parishes were administered to by one diocesan and six religious priests, seven brothers and 19 sisters. The 11 Catholic elementary, high schools and trade schools provided education to the several hundred Catholic students in the country, many of whom were of European ancestry. As a minority faith in a predominately Muslim country, missionary activity remained focused on humanitarian endeavors rather than evangelization. An annual celebration held by Djibouti's Catholic population was open to all the nation's Christians.

Bibliography: Annuaire des Diocèses d'Expression Françaises pour l'Afrique et Madagascar (Paris 1955). Annuario Pontificio has further information.

[t. a. white/eds.]