Algeria: Numbers Do Not Make a Church
Interview With Archbishop of Algiers
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ROME, NOV. 25, 2011 (Zenit.org).- More than 99% of Algerians are Muslim. Yet this was not always the case. The north African country was once at the center of Christian culture and faith with more than 500 dioceses and 1,500 bishops.
So, has the Church in Algeria somehow died? Archbishop Ghaleb Moussa Abdalla Bader of Algiers says no.
The Jordanian-born 60-year-old prelate has been the archbishop of the Algerian capital since 2008. Mark Riedemann for Where God Weeps in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need spoke with the archbishop about his Church.
Q: Your Excellency, you were born in Jordan, you served in Jerusalem and in 2008 you were appointed the archbishop of Algeria. What was your reaction?
Archbishop Bader: What was my reaction? It was a total surprise for me, I never thought in my life that I would be the archbishop of Algiers. When the nuncio told me that the Holy Father nominated me as archbishop, I didn't know what to say and I asked for a week to reflect, but the nuncio was in a hurry and wanted an immediate answer. I told him please do not insist otherwise you will get a "no" for an answer because I was not ready and I needed more time to assimilate the information.
Q: And what happened?
Archbishop Bader: I was in complete confusion and I thought to myself, you can take a year to reflect and you will still not be able to extricate yourself from the situation. I went back to the nuncio and started to write my answer, telling my reasons why I wished to stay in Jerusalem: I love this Church, I belong, have worked, and studied in this Church and I wanted to finish my life with this Church. Jerusalem is not like any other Church. It is the Mother Church. There are the holy places and to belong to the Church of Jerusalem was very important to me. But in the end, I understood, it is the Universal Church. It is the Catholic Church. There is a need everywhere and therefore I am ready to go.
Q: So you took it as a cross?
Archbishop Bader: Not as a cross but the will of the Church and of God and I was ready to accept the will of the Church and of God. If I can do this service to the Church and for the Kingdom of Jesus Christ I was ready to do it. I did it with joy and not with regret, fear maybe, but not regret.
Q: You are the first Arab archbishop entering into Algeria after a generation of French hierarchy. Did the people sense that you, being an Arab, would understand the culture better?
Archbishop Bader: That was the intention of the Church, a gesture, a sign of respect toward this Arab country. The nomination of an Arab after a period of French leadership was an answer to the changes already happening in this Church. Yes, the Church was for a while under the French, but the French are now a minority of which 40% are African; students or immigrants and the rest are Christians from Europe, Latin America and North America. The changes were already happening in the Church and the nomination of a non-French in Algeria was an answer to these changes already ongoing.
Q: What was the reaction of the local government?
Archbishop Bader: The reaction of the Algerian authorities was very enthusiastic and I felt it. On the day of my nomination, the Algerian ambassador to Jordan gave me a call and invited me to meet him and I have since met him twice. I was welcomed when I arrived in Algeria and the president himself sent a representative, which is the first time ever that the president or his representative wanted to be present to welcome the new archbishop. I especially felt a great love and welcome for an Arab from the people. I was labeled "Our Archbishop" and even the Muslims called me their archbishop.
Q: The former archbishop of Algiers, Henri Tessier, in a New York Times article was quoted as saying he had been witness "to the slow death of a Church." Is that the situation of the Church in Algeria today?
Archbishop Bader: We have to understand where Archbishop Tessier is coming from. He spent 70 to 75 years in Algeria. He was a seminarian and was ordained in Algeria. He was a citizen and a carried an Algerian passport. He knew the history of the Church in Algeria. When he was a seminarian there were 2 million Christians in Algeria and this has gone down to a few thousand Christians now. This is the context of his statement and I can understand him when he spoke about the death of this Church. However, the Church will always be the Church. It does not depend on numbers. It is the same Church, the same mission, and we are doing the same work. I do not agree with him of course, but I can understand him because he was comparing what the Church was then to what it is now. When I came this was the reality of the Church. I accept it. I do my work and I do not talk about a death. The Church is alive, it is present and doing its best for the well-being of its faithful and the country.
Q: There are about 20 churches still active in Algeria. Many have been converted to mosques or cultural centers. What are your ideas to maintain support in an environment that seems to be very difficult?
Archbishop Bader: This was a consequence of the Christians moving back to France after the war. There were churches without Christians anymore. The Church was not going to keep these churches simply because they were churches. It was a gesture of the Church to give these churches and buildings for the use of the population. About two or three churches were converted to mosques. The reaction of the authorities was of respect; they would not allow the conversion of these churches to mosques and that is why many of the churches that were given by the Church to the authorities were transformed into cultural centers and libraries and whatever buildings were needed. I have read somewhere that about 700 churches and other buildings were returned to the Algerian authorities and put at their services for the benefit of the population.
Q: Algerian society has shifted from a French -- or European -- one to an Arab society focused on the Middle East. Is this shift away from Europe positive or negative?
Archbishop Bader: It is in relation to the historical relationship between Algeria and France. Any decisions taken by Algeria after independence were a reaction from the past. They wanted to be free from the past and turned toward an Arabic culture and language. However, this is not accepted by 100% of the population and that is why 90% of Algerians speak French. I am Arab but 99% of the time I speak in French to the people so the shift you mentioned is not really the case -- at least for most Algerians. It is true that the authorities want Algeria to be an Arab and Islamic country and as such have imposed the Arabic language on education.
Q: Many of the conflicts that are perceived in the Arabic world are seen through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Is this also the case in Algeria?
Archbishop Bader: It is true the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does infect the Arab-Western and Christian-Muslim relationships. As long as there is no solution to this conflict, mistrust will always exist. A peaceful solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would help very much to settle this mistrust between the Arab and Western countries and between the Christens and Muslims. Therefore, I appeal for a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It will be for the benefit of humanity as a whole and not just the region. It will bring about a global peace and peaceful coexistence among the religions.
Q: Ghulamallah, the minister of Religious Affairs in Algeria, invited you to a conference to discuss religious freedom. During your speech, you talked about repealing the laws that put restrictions on Christians. How would you present the Christian situation today?
Archbishop Bader: The minister of Religious Affairs, Ghulamallah, not just invited me but we organized the conference together. We decided whom to invite and we both organized the program.
Q: … so your relationship with the Minister of Religious Affairs is amicable.
Archbishop Bader: Our relationship is very good. We meet at least once every month. We exchange good wishes during religious feasts for Christians and Muslims. We always have had very good relations ever since I arrived. The problem now is the law of 2006 that restricts religious practices, activities or worship only within the churches. For us Catholics this is not such a problem because we have enough churches. The problem is moreover for the Evangelicals and Protestants who do not have places of worship and also for us Catholics when we wish to gather outside for religious activities.
Q: How does this affect evangelization and the work of the priests in their ministry?
Archbishop Bader: It is the second part of this law of 2006 that declares that all our activities -- worship and prayers -- are to take place only inside the Church. Evangelization and conversion is prohibited. Anyone caught violating this law is penalized by either incarceration or a fine of about €2,000 ($2,650). During the conference I said that law could not regulate worship. This was not the case before 2006.
Q: In the Algerian Constitution, Article 36 guarantees religious freedom?
Archbishop Bader: That is true, the constitution guarantees religious freedom and we have agreed on that.
Q: How do you minister in this environment?
Archbishop Bader: Our first mission is to be there, to live our faith, and to be faithful to our religion and to respect the other faiths despite our differences. The Church believes -- and I believe -- that religious freedom is a human right.
Q: What would you say would be the biggest help the universal Church could offer the Church in Algeria?
Archbishop Bader: The biggest help is to accept our message. Our mission and our message is to learn to live peacefully with each other. This message is for Christians, Muslims or Buddhists and if this message is heeded, this would give a boost and encouragement for our Church. I thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about our Church, which is not known by everyone and I hope that this program will help somebody to know, firstly that the Church exists in this country and secondly to invite you, if you wish, to share in our mission and to come to Algeria. I would be very happy -- I am in need of personnel for our Church.
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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
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