Count on Our Support, Pontifical Foundation to Mauritania’s Small Catholic Population

Bishop Martin Albert Happe of Nouakchott Diocese in Mauritania, Credit: ACN

The Catholic Pontifical and charity foundation, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) International, has announced an upcoming engagement with a Bishop in Mauritania, and assured the leadership of the Church in the Northwestern African country of its help to sustain Christianity in the hugely Islamic population.

In a Thursday, September 1 report, ACN says that Bishop Martin Albert Happe of Nouakchott, the only Catholic Diocese in Mauritania, will soon be visiting the charity’s office in Switzerland where he will talk about the challenges that Christians face in the country.

“Between September 10 and 18, 2022, Bishop Martin Happe from Mauritania will visit Switzerland … At the invitation of the ACN, Bishop Martin Happe is coming to Switzerland to talk about the challenges facing Christians in Mauritania,” ACN says in the report.

The Pontifical charity foundation observes that despite the small percentage of Catholics in Mauritania who hardly get any support from the state, the Church’s charity stands out in the country.

“The Catholic Church is heavily involved in social and charitable projects, such as kindergartens and training centers for street children and single mothers,” the charity foundation says, adding, “The church in Mauritania, which has hardly any financial resources, can count on the support of the aid organization, Aid to the Church in Need.”


ACN notes that Mauritania is one of the poorest countries in the world, and explains, “90 percent of the country lies in the Sahara. In former times, the inhabitants were nomads who lived from cattle breeding. But the desert continues to spread.”

According to the Catholic aid agency, many inhabitants of Mauritania have lost their herds and are migrating to the slums of the cities.

A Christian’s life is the hardest in the Islamic republic where, since 1960, Christian proselytizing is strictly forbidden. Changing religion is considered apostasy, punishable by death.

The U.S. government estimates that 99 percent of Mauritania’s 4 million people are Sunni Muslims while Shia Muslims account for 1 percent of the country’s total population. There is a small number of non-Muslims, mostly Christians and a small number of Jews, all of them foreigners.

The constitution of Mauritania defines the country as an Islamic republic and recognizes Islam as the sole religion of its citizenry and the state. The country’s judiciary consists of a single system of courts that relies on a combination of sharia and secular legal principles.

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The law prohibits apostasy. The criminal code requires a death sentence for any Muslim convicted of apostasy, but the government has never applied this provision since it was enacted in 2018. The criminal code also treats blasphemy as a capital offense and subject to the death penalty.

According to a report by the US Department of State, faith-based NGOs in Mauritania must agree to refrain from promoting any religion other than Islam. The law requires the Ministry of Interior to authorize in advance all group meetings, including non-Islamic religious gatherings and those held in private homes.

Nevertheless, according to the ACN report, most of the Christians living in Mauritania come from abroad; there are hardly any native Christians in the Northwestern African nation.

The Catholic Church in Mauritania, according to the ACN estimates, comprises about 4,500 believers in some six Parishes.

“The small Catholic minority consists mainly of foreigners,” the charity foundation reports, adding, “These are so-called guest workers from Europe, South America or from neighboring African countries.”


Besides Bishop Happe, there are 13 Priests and 44 women and men Religious ministering among the lay faithful, the Pontifical and charity foundation reports.

Originally from Münsterland, Germany, Bishop Happe has been working as the President of the only Bishopric in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania since 1995.

He joined the religious community of the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers) after his school education and was ordained Priest in Germany on 2 June 1973.

He then served as a missionary in the Diocese of Mopti in Mali. Pope John Paul II appointed him Bishop of Nouakchott, Mauritania, in 1995.

ACN has reported that in 2009, the Catholic Bishop was awarded the Bernhard Kleinhans Plaque “for his social commitment, his unbiased attitude toward Islam, and his work on behalf of migrants and their survivors.”

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Despite his long work in Africa, Bishop Happe tells ACN that he is not yet thinking of retirement.

“It wasn't always easy. But, when I fell asleep at night, I never regretted going this way,” the Catholic Bishop says in the ACN September 1 report, adding that he keeps hearing from his co-workers that he is still needed.

Agnes Aineah is a Kenyan journalist with a background in digital and newspaper reporting. She holds a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism from the Aga Khan University, Graduate School of Media and Communications and a Bachelor's Degree in Linguistics, Media and Communications from Kenya's Moi University. Agnes currently serves as a journalist for ACI Africa.