Exhibition on St. Augustine Points to Tunisia's Christian History

Interview With Vicar General of Tunis Diocese

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TUNIS, Tunisia, DEC. 13, 2004 (Zenit.org).- An exhibition and congress on "Africanism and Universality" in Tunisia will mark the 1,650th anniversary of St. Augustine's birth in Roman Africa.



The exhibition, to be held Dec. 15-Jan. 10 in Carthage's Acropolium, is sponsored by the Tunisian Ministry of Culture, Youth and Leisure, with the collaboration of the Tunis Diocese and the Swiss Embassy.

To better understand the importance of the exhibit and the timeliness of Augustine's message, ZENIT interviewed Monsignor Dominique Rezeau, vicar general of the Tunis Diocese.

Q: Tunisia is no longer what it was in St. Augustine's times. How influential is Christianity today in Tunisian reality?

Monsignor Rezeau: Since the country's independence and the exit of numerous Europeans, the Church is somewhat similar to what it was in its origins: a small community of believers that tries to live its faith and give testimony of its charity.

Its relations with Tunisian society are good and are particularly important in the areas of health and education, the majority of whose beneficiaries are Tunisians.

There is also close cooperation with local associations in regard to the care of needy children and the disabled. The diocese runs 10 primary and secondary schools in some of the large cities of the country, as well as the St. Augustine Clinic, the only institution of these characteristics in North Africa.

The Institute of Arabic Classics, created by the White Fathers, and several libraries cater to secondary school and university students.

Q: Is there much interest in St. Augustine's writings? What are the objectives of this exhibition and congress?

Monsignor Rezeau: The exhibition on St. Augustine, promoted jointly by the Tunis Diocese and the Ministry of Culture, is revealing a rediscovery of Tunisia's Christian past, in which St. Augustine played an important part, straddling the Roman period and the Vandalic invasion, succeeded by the Byzantines and then the Arabs.

Carthage was then the Christian metropolis of Africa, the second see after Rome, with its numerous dioceses, saints and pastors, theologians -- Christians who, in some cases, still felt the temptation of paganism, and, in others, the nascent heresies, in particular Donatism and Pelagianism.

The writings of Tertullian; St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, martyred in 258; and St. Augustine guided and still guide the faith and life of the Church, in our diocese, and well beyond its borders.

We hope at the same time that this exhibition will help Tunisian and foreign visitors to discover the great figure of the "Doctor of Grace," who can be called, as St Thomas More was later, "a man for all seasons."

In fact, this is the meaning of the exhibition's title "Africanism and Universality," whose didactic dimension was prepared by the University of Fribourg and the archaeological part by the Tunisian National Heritage Institute.

Q: You are vicar general of a predominantly Muslim diocese. What is interreligious dialogue like?

Monsignor Rezeau: Our community is submerged in an almost totally Muslim world. We are accepted and respected, both by the state authorities as well as the population.

Mutual interest in our religions and different traditions enables us to live side by side peacefully and to be enriched even by these differences. More than of interreligious dialogue, we like to speak of dialogue among persons of different religions, who can cooperate in many areas in favor of the common good.

We do not try to convince the other, but to offer a testimony of life and love. "If charity fails, of what good is the rest!" wrote St. Augustine.

Q: How are fundamentalism and terrorism perceived by Tunisian society?

Monsignor Rezeau: Tunisian authorities and society support and defend a state founded on peace and moderation. The Muslim religious authorities move in the same direction, and in this country one does not hear calls to fundamentalism or the support of terrorism.

It is true that there can be specific Muslim currents, but they don't seem to find echo in the majority of people.

Intense contacts with European countries, with France and Italy in particular -- frequent meetings between inhabitants of those countries; people and families that come and go -- favor a climate of understanding and tolerance.

In regard to the conflicts in the Middle East, which always arouse very intense reactions in Arab countries, mention must be made of the very positive appreciation of the positions taken by Pope John Paul II and by the Catholic Church in favor of peace.

Q: What can Catholics in the rest of the world, in particular in the West, do to help the Tunisian Church?

Monsignor Rezeau: Catholic organizations and several dioceses of Italy in particular enable us to live at the material level, as we do not have resources other than the modest contributions of our faithful. And there is always need of help to maintain our parishes, priests and religious, our schools and health centers.

From Western Churches and from our Catholic brethren we expect, above all, interest in and knowledge of our reality. We often hear it said: We are few but we are very united, priests and laity. Many of them have treasures of generosity and dedication. "When one loves, it doesn't cost; otherwise, one loves until it costs," St. Augustine said.