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NEWS | Wednesday, 08 April 2009

A map of faith in Malta

Although Catholicism is the declared religion of 98% of the population, virtually every other form of religious faith is also represented in Malta. On the one hand we have the kaleidoscopic variety provided by the world’s most organized religion, in the world’s most Catholic country and on the other we have the kaleidoscope made of minute fragments of every other kind of faith. Beyond the confines of organised religion we find the faiths of atheism and that of Satanism. Beyond them still, the historical evidence of paganism in a wealth of temples remains hard to explain on a small group of islands which could not sustain a population of much more than 10,000 souls.

Catholicism is the established Church in Malta in terms of the Constitution. Claiming its origins in the conversion of the islanders by the Apostle Paul, it has certainly held political dominance since the coming of the Normans in 1090 although the idea of continuity from 60 AD is disputed. With the Alhambra Decree of 1492 expelling Jews and Moriscos from the dominions of the Aragonese Empire, Malta became, at least nominally, completely Catholic.
Leaping to the present day, Malta remains probably the most Catholic country in the world including the Vatican whose population hails from other jurisdictions none of which can compete with the cultural dominance which Catholicism enjoys in Malta. This fact produces an unchallenged Catholic reality and permits the articulation of every possible form of living one’s Catholic faith.
Imbibing Catholicism from their mother’s breast a vast swathe take their faith for granted, carrying on in its practice without ever having considered the possibility of an alternative or of the need to justify their faith to others of different faiths or of none. Many others participate in the outward signs of religious practice either in compliance with social expectations or in order to form part of social groupings such as band clubs, festa impresario groups or pyrotechnic enterprises associated with village feasts.
However the renowned devotion of the Maltese to the religion is not a myth. Attendance and Sunday mass is still at rates among the highest for Catholics anywhere although it varies significantly by locality having a clear correlation to political allegiance.
While attendance per se may not be a convincing sign of profound attachment, the participation of the Maltese in the various Catholic communities is unquestionably so. Membership in the Charismatic Christian Renewal, the Neocatechumenal Way, the Legion of Mary, Opus Dei, Youth Fellowship, Society of Christian Doctrine and other such groups indicates the existence of a strong core of believers. Malta is reputed to have the highest per capita membership in the Neocatechumenal Way movement which has attracted criticism from within the Church for its exclusive and allegedly heretical practices.
Despite is overwhelming stature the Church has gone onto the defensive and appears to assume its loss of status in coming years. The lack of new vocations to the priesthood combines with the increasing assault on traditional values from consumerism to justify such Catholic concerns, however some of the perceived and real erosion may be self-inflicted. A telling response to the 2003 Bishop’s synod indicated a detachment of the aging priesthood from their rapidly evolving congregations. Catholics from every sphere in Malta demanded more appropriate and effective homilies.
The legacy of the Interdict imposed on the Malta Labour Party in the 1960s is today a significant cohort of second and third generation unbelievers who no longer form part of a homogenous Maltese Catholic culture and no longer automatically accept its doctrinal determinations as a matter of course. While insignificant in absolute numbers they constitute a novel challenge for the Church in being a homegrown alternative, a durable defiance when compared to the transient exposure to other faiths and lifestyles through the ages from foreign dominations, passing traders and tourists.
The other issues have taken a greater toll. The prohibition of divorce if not directly in deference to Church doctrine has held until the present day in acknowledgement of the political clout of the Church. So far, a direct confrontation with the Church on this issue was perceived to be electorally disastrous for any Government proposing to lift the ban.
This has not prevented an increase in the rate of marital separations and over the years an accumulation of broken marriages as well as second or third relationship often producing offspring. The growing weight of the acclimatisation to the absence of divorce has induced a widespread tolerance of irregular unions and legislative accommodations with regard to illegitimacy thereby creating a permanent dissonance with Church doctrine within a significant portion of the population.
The issue of abortion finds the Maltese overwhelmingly in parallel with Church doctrine. However the persistent campaigning of anti-abortion activists in the absence of their counterparts has been counterproductive at least in raising a dormant issue. Pressure on MEP candidate Sharon Ellul Bonici by Gift of Life has produced the novel effect of earning her some sympathy in resisting it.
With regard to homosexuality the situation is again different. Decriminalised since 1974 homosexuality is socially tolerated although a mention of gay marriage or gay adoption can be expected to raise a homophobic reaction, however recent statements by Pope Benedict XVI on the issue, the distribution of a homophobic publication by the Church publishing house and the perceived Church insensitivity to gay issues have given rise to direct criticism by Gay Rights campaigner Patrick Attard and to sympathy for his views in the wider liberal segment of Maltese society.

While not itself a religion, anticlericalism is a political or philosophical stance, in Malta necessarily related to Catholicism. It exists in its full range from apathetic contempt to raging phobia.

The other kaleidoscope of faith

Little is known about the faiths of the remaining 2% of the population and the majority remains quite unconscious of the experience of being a miniscule minority made by some of their friends and neighbours.

The largest segment of this minority is the Muslim community. The Arab Conquest in 870 AD produced a period of 140 years of Muslim rule the cultural traces of which are contested, denied and overlaid by the intervening centuries of Christian cultural domination. However the persistence a Maltese language of Arabic origin with massive romance imports is at once the rootstock of Maltese identity and the cause of unease with Islam.
Only the wildly imaginative can persuade themselves that Maltese society has been cut off from this reality since the Norman Conquest in 1090. Through the centuries intercourse with the Muslim southern shores of the Mediterranean has continued through war and trade. Our frontier status as the southernmost outpost of Christian Europe in a centuries-long conflict with Islamic states and the Ottoman Empire may obscure the fact that an Islamic presence in Malta was ensured through the lively slave trade which ensured that some Maltese were carried off to slavery in North Africa while Muslim slaves were ever present in Malta.
It may be hard for many of us to come to terms with the fact that during the 16th and 17th centuries a third of the population of Valletta must have been Muslim. This came to an end only with the coming of the French and abolition of slavery in 1798. It may be the almost total absence of a Muslim presence in Malta during British colonial rule that may allow us to think of a Muslim presence in Malta as a recent phenomenon.
Political rapprochement with Libya during the rule of Dom Mintoff in the 1970s secured the establishment of Malta’s largest non-Catholic community, around 3,000 strong, about 2,250 being non-Maltese, 600 naturalized Maltese and 150 native Maltese. Since 1973 we have a mosque founded by the World Islamic Call Society which is a Libyan governmental association for promoting Islam. We also have a Muslim primary school and a project for establishing a Muslim cemetery is well in hand. Many of the irregular migrants present in Malta are Muslim.
The strict observance of a Syrian whitewasher who does not accept a drink of water in the heat of Ramadan earns the respect of Catholic with a distant memory of such fasting in lent while the violations of a drunken Muslim out on the tiles in the fleshpots of Gzira or Paceville excite the contempt of the Maltese who may more easily forgive similar excesses in their compatriots.
Islam in Malta is largely a missed opportunity for the Maltese Catholic majority which remains more apprehensive than curious about this neighbours’ religion, a key to the culture of millions on our doorstep.

Coptic Christians
Among the non-Catholic Christians, seniority must be granted to the Coptic community, now around 200 strong. Their bishop Paul with his long beard and embroidered scull cap invites the transient curiosity of the Maltese public but little is generally known of the Coptic community who live and work among us. Their current aspiration is to be assigned a church as a permanent focus for their religious rites or to be allowed to build one. Their tales of religious persecution by extremists in their homeland, Egypt, would excite the sympathy of the Maltese public but they struggle to secure concessions from the Catholic church or from the Maltese government to be hosted in some little used church. Assigned the Church of Tal-Pilar in Old Mint Street for a while by the Government, they were asked to vacate it for restoration work to be carried out. They never returned to the Church and their Church vestments were lost during their time of absence.
Their language, a remnant of Ancient Egyptian, permitted the deciphering of the Rosetta stone by French scholar Champillion and the boom in Egyptology following the understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Maltese are the only Christian Europeans whose name for God is Alla. It is a phenomenon they now share with the Copts.

Greek Orthodox
One must assume that prior to the Arab Conquest in 870 AD this was the version of Christianity prevailing in Byzantine Malta. However Norman loyalty to the Pope in Rome secured Malta for Western Christianity since 1090 and a Greek Orthodox presence in Malta has since had only a tenuous hold. Rhodian refugees arriving with the Knights of St John in 1530 may have constituted the first permanent community, occasional traders settling here from Greece making up an intermittent presence through the centuries.
The Maltese community is very small although historically bolstered by events in other countries such as the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Second World War and more recently the war in former Yugoslavia. A small Russian presence in Malta since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 adds another few heads to the community.
The small church of Our Lady of Philermos in Archbishop Street, Valletta known as tal-Griegi is home to the Catholics of the Eastern Rite and not to the Greek Orthodox Community. The confusion of the uninitiated is understandable since in both cases the priest is know as the Papas and in both cases is not bound to celibacy as are Roman Catholic priests.

Church of England
The presence of the Anglican Church in Malta is a legacy of British rule when it served a large and devout Anglican community made up of military personnel and their families as well as significant British civilian community. The Anglican cathedral of St Paul’s in Valletta is now an outsize facility for a miniscule practising community but its Christmas Carol service popular with Anglicans and Christians alike. Its Ministers attend to the spiritual needs of the small British resident community and of visiting Anglicans.

Church of Scotland
St Andrew’s Church in South Street is a neo-gothic curiosity in the Valletta streetscape also reminiscent of colonial times. Today it serves the Church of Scotland community as well as the German Lutheran community, yet another religious facet to Malta which passes largely unobserved but adds to the wealth of religious diversity.

Other Christian denominations
In recent years various other Christian communities have become established in Malta as a result of active proselytism rather than as a consequence of the arrival of a particular community. A small but significant number of native Maltese brought up as Catholics have converted to these faiths. There are approximately 500 Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormons, now has an established community as does the Bible Baptist Church. The Evangelical Alliance has 7 churches and 2 organizations that are affiliated with around 400 members between them.

The Jewish presence in Malta can be assumed to date to Roman times reach its peak in the medieval period. The Alhambra Decree of 1492 forcing this community to convert to Christianity or leave the island brought about the “disappearance” of around a third of the existing Maltese population. While many Maltese Jews may have left, several existing Maltese surnames reveal a Jewish origin probably harking back to this great purge.
The Torah of the present Jewish community is one of the oldest in the Mediterranean and can be considered to be a unique heritage asset, quite apart from its religious significance to the community.
Although bolstered by the presence of visiting and resident foreigners the core of Maltese Jewish families remains in such small numbers that concern for the continuity of Judaism in Malta is an endemic concern. The ancient synagogue in Valletta was demolished during slum clearance in the 1970s and never substituted by the Government.

The Maltese Indian community, set up during colonial times, is firmly integrated into Maltese society while retaining its cultural and religious identity. Religious festivals and services are observed but in such a low key that the majority remain quite unaware of the existence of this religious community or that its presence is our only live link to a vast and diverse religious tradition. Its temple remains unnoticed by its immediate neighbours.
Visiting members may be less frequent than those in other denominations but family links with India ensure renewal and continuity. The increasing practice of Yoga by Maltese of other religions provides the opportunity for insights into Hinduism which may not have been available previously.

As much a philosophy as a religion, Buddhism takes many forms and can be practised in many ways to the extent that some members of Catholic religious orders are practitioners. This makes it more difficult to establish the existence of a Buddhist community per se; however the practice of the gentle religion is not unknown to Malta and enjoys cyclical growth and decline. Malta also has a representative of the Dalai Lama who is a cherished personality within the wider minority of political liberals.

Is alive and well in Malta and although not strictly a religion involves a set of beliefs and binding rules of conduct. Officially frowned upon by the Catholic Church, its history dates back to the days of the Knights of St John and flourished during British colonial rule; but remained secretive giving rise to speculation and conspiracy theories. The recent establishment of a website ( provides the public with more information than ever before and indicates a strong presence with many Maltese members.

All others
Virtually every other conceivable religious practice and sect is or was present in Malta from Falun Gong to the Unification Church. A Baha’i Faith community is unobtrusively but firmly established. Atheism and agnosticism, the first a belief and the second an absence of belief may be the most significant religious growth phenomena and the most difficult to document particularly where cultural Catholicism remains the most convenient camouflage. The practice of Satanism has been documented and superstition, particularly the belief in the evil eye is endemic.


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