Mauritania, The Catholic Church in
MAURITANIA, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
Located in northwest Africa, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania is bordered on the northwest by Western Sahara, on the east and southeast by Mali, on the southwest by Senegal and on the west by the North Atlantic Ocean. While much of the region's north is desert, in the south alluvial soil lines the border with Senegal. Plateaus in the north and central areas rise to mountains of 1,500 feet. Natural resources consist of iron ore and copper, while agricultural products from the south include millet, rice, and the raising of livestock. Several eastern oases allow for the cultivation of date palms.
A former territory of French West Africa, the region declared independence as the Islamic Republic of Mauritania in 1960. Its inhabitants, many of them nomadic farmers who were later forced into cities to work in the mining and manufacturing industries, were almost all Muslims. The average life expectancy for a Mauritanian was 48.7 years in 2000, and fewer than 38 percent were literate in French or Arabic.
The home of nomadic Berbers since the 1st century, the region was explored by the Portuguese in the 15th century, and trading outposts from many nations soon became established along the coast, leading to territorial disputes. Most of the country became part of the Prefecture Apostolic of Saint-Louis du Sénégal in Senegal, established in 1779. The Senegal treaty of 1817 gave the French official control of the region, although little colonization occurred as a result. Beginning in 1877 care of the region's Catholics was transferred from Senegal to the vicar apostolic of Senegambia. Within 25 years the region had become occupied and was made a part of French West Africa in 1904. Mauritania became a French colony in 1921 and following World War II was reclassified as an overseas territory of France.
By the 1950s, most of the region's Catholics were Europeans, while native Mauritanians remained Muslim. In 1955 the prefecture overseeing Mauritania was entrusted to the holy ghost fathers. Seven sisters of the Congregation of St. Joseph of the Apparition served in Atar and Port Étienne. On Dec. 18, 1965 Mauritania became the jurisdiction of the new Diocese of Nouakchott, subject to the Archdiocese of Dakar, Senegal, under the Holy Ghost Fathers.
In 1958 Mauritania became an autonomous republic in the French community, and it gained its independence two years later, on Nov. 28, 1960. In 1963, after mineral deposits discovered in the region boosted the nation's economic outlook, Morocco claimed possession of Mauritania; these claims to territory were withdrawn in 1969. Further disputes occurred in 1976, after Spain withdrew from Western Sahara and both Morocco and Mauritania disputed ownership of the southernmost third of this region. In 1979, a year after its president was replaced by a military government, Mauritania relinquished all claims in favor of Morocco. In 1989 a border war began with Senegal that lasted until early 1992, its basis the continuing ethnic tensions between the black minority farming in the south and the native Arab-Berber population.
In July of 1991 multi-party politics and elections were reestablished, and a new constitution was passed, based on the Constitutional Charter of Feb. 9, 1985. Under this constitution, Muslim law (shari’a) became the basis for law and Islam was proclaimed the state religion. Despite the existence of multiple political parties, the government continued to be controlled by the ruling Democratic and Social Republican Party. Though a minority faith, Catholics remained free to practice their
faith, although proselytization of Muslims was discouraged. Bibles were not printed or sold in Mauritania, although there was no law against possessing them. Instruction in the Islamic faith was required of all students in public schools, although exemptions were available to parents.
By 2000 Mauritania had six parishes tended by three secular and ten religious priests. Fewer than 40 sisters tended to the five Catholic kindergarten schools and other humanitarian concerns among the nation's small Catholic population, almost all of whom were foreign workers. While increasing fundamentalist sentiment among Muslims led to charges of discrimination in the late 1990s, Church leaders remained cautious about taking an aggressive stand against the nation's majority faith. In addition to a rise in foreign debt, the lack of fresh water due to drought and the encroachment of the Sahara continued to plague this region, prompting Pope John Paul II to contribute funds through his private charity, Cor Unum, and to request amnesty for debts. In 1999, at the urging of the Vatican, Great Britain announced plans to forgive Mauritania all monies owed it in debt service.
Bibliography: Bilan du Monde (Tournai 1964) 2:605–607. Annuario Pontificio has statistics on all diocese.