By Reinhard Backes, ACN International
Adapted by AB Griffin, ACN Canada
To the Spiritan Fathers working on the two main islands of Unguja (or Zanzibar) and Pemba, which together make up Zanzibar and which since 1964 have also formed part of the East African nation of Tanzania, the words of Father Liebermann have been a source of comfort and enabled them to confront every difficulty – both then and now. On January 19th , 2014, the diocese honoured the commitment of these first missionaries with a special Jubilee celebration, marking “150 Years of Catholic Faith in the Diocese of Zanzibar”.
While it is true that Portuguese missionaries had already reached these East African islands by the end of the 16th century, they had subsequently been expelled again. It was not until the end of 1860 that the Catholic Faith took permanent root here. The then ruler of the islands, Sultan Sayyeid Majid bin Said, welcomed the new arrivals with these words: “You are welcome! My house is your house, my people are your people, I am your brother.” In 1863, Zanzibar was established by Rome as an apostolic prefecture.
Today, according to the Church’s pontifical yearbook, the Annuario Pontificio, there are some 13,600 Catholics living on Unguja and Pemba, thereby representing roughly 1% of the population. There are 20 priests involved in the pastoral work of the diocese. Bishop Augustine Shao, himself a Spiritan (CSSp), has been in charge of the diocese since 1997. The international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has been supporting the pastoral work of the diocese for many years now. Traditionally, the Catholics have always lived in great harmony with the overwhelmingly Muslim population; however, sadly – and for some years now – the open attitude of Sultan Sayyeid Majid bin Said has no longer been shared by all his fellow Muslims. In recent years the climate of tolerance on Zanzibar has sharply changed, and although the charitable initiatives of the Catholic Church extend to include everyone, and indeed mostly Muslims, there are some extremist groups that are virulently hostile to the presence of Christians on Zanzibar and which express their opposition in more than simply words.
This was again made evident very recently, in September 2013, when in the parish of Mpandae an elderly Catholic priest was attacked with acid and severely burned. He survived the attack, but suffered severe acid burns and is currently being treated in India. For his parish it was not the first, but the fourth such violent attack. As Bishop Augustine Shao observed, “This has triggered fear – in me, in the priests, the religious and the parishioners. We are living like wanted criminals. It is sad enough that not one of the attackers has been arrested by the police, quite apart from the fact that this criminal act took place in broad daylight, in a market place.” Earlier, at the end of May 2012, the parish church in Mpandae had been attacked, and parts of the building and its furnishings had been set on fire and burned, before the attackers could be chased away.
ACN has already agreed to help towards the cost of repairing the damage.
Although the authorities in Zanzibar are now starting to move against the extremists, the situation remains tense and unpredictable. Bu,t the Catholics of Zanzibar are not going to let this spoil their joy in the Jubilee of their faith.