ACN News, Friday, 27thd August 2010 – ALGERIA
Christians in Algeria – witnessing in difficult times
By Reinhard Backes
In Algeria Christians make up only a tiny minority. And yet their exact numbers are difficult to establish. According to estimates there are up to 10,000 Protestants and up to 5,000 Catholics in the country – in a total population of 38 million. In the 4th Century no less a person than Saint Augustine spoke of the prominence of a Church that numbered several hundred dioceses at the time, yet today the situation of all Christians is extremely precarious. Anyone who does not belong to the Sunni Muslim majority in Algeria is constantly exposed to a degree of official arbitrariness. Although religious freedom is officially proclaimed in this, the second largest country geographically, in Africa, in practice it does not exist. Since 2006 there has been a law that punishes any form of evangelisation and which covers the dissemination of religious writings, audiovisual media and any initiatives by Christians that "might undermine the faith of a Muslim".
This law is in fact a reaction to the conversion of numerous Muslims to Christianity. Against the background of the civil war of the 1990s, which according to many estimates claimed up 250,000 lives, many Algerians turned away from Islam and embraced above all the evangelical movements. Militant islamist groups observed this with outrage, since for them Christians are already a thorn in the side. In order to appease these forces and in an effort to achieve some sort of stability, President Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika issued a decree in 2006 which effectively limited the religious freedom of non-Muslims.
Ever since then, Christians have been subjected to constant harassment. Their gatherings are monitored and they are banned from any public religious practice, while restrictions have been placed on donations from abroad. Catholic Archbishop Ghaleb Bader of Algiers has not allowed himself to be intimidated by these measures, however, and has constantly renewed his demands for Christians to be granted the right to the free exercise of their religion. To the irritation of the government, he has frequently intervened at the highest levels, whenever Christians have been discriminated against or intimidated by lower levels of the state authority.
Catholic Archbishop Ghaleb Bader of Algiers
Archbishop Ghaleb Bader, who comes from Jordan, has been in office since 2008. He represents a Church that "is in essence no longer a local church", as he emphasised recently in an interview with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). Following Algerian independence in 1962, the vast majority of Christians - some 2 million in number - overwhelmingly of French nationality, left the country. Today the Algerians Catholics number just a few hundred. Most Catholics living in the country today are foreigners, coming from either Europe or Africa. They live principally in the coastal region, in the dioceses of Algiers, Oran and Constantine. In the diocese of Laghouat, the largest in area and which covers the entire south of the country, there are only a handful of Catholics.
Yet, although they are but a tiny minority, the Catholics fulfil an important function, according to Archbishop Ghaleb Bader. "They witness to Christ, and thus to the continuing existence of his Church. That counts for a lot." And while, undoubtedly, there continue to be difficulties with the authorities from time to time, the Catholics are highly regarded by the majority of the people. "A Christian living among Muslims can make a big difference. He witnesses by example to something different", the archbishop added. "Our friendship, our service prompts our Muslim countrymen to ask themselves, why do the Christians do this? Why do they live among us, although they are in danger?"
To give one example, in 1996 the kidnap and murder of seven Trappist monks hit the headlines around the world. To this day their monastery in Tibhirine, about 50 miles southwest of Algiers, lies empty. Archbishop Bader remarked, "I am again and again surprised by the reaction of the ordinary people. So far, we only use the monastery for retreats or other meetings. But the people in the surrounding area still ask me again and again, when the monks will come back; quite simply, they miss them."
Despite his very limited financial resources, Archbishop Ghaleb Bader has some ambitious plans. During the time of the civil war, many churches and other Church properties were, in his own words, neglected. Urgent repairs were not carried out. Yet now this renovation work can no longer be postponed. Little by little, he hopes to repair the various buildings. "We owe this also to our Muslim neighbours, who are not particularly impressed by such poverty", he explains.
Yet it is not first and foremost money that is required. Above all, the Church needs priests and religious who are willing to shoulder the many different pastoral tasks. There is also a lack of healthcare staff, and especially of courses for women, and likewise a lack of educational opportunities, such as language courses.
Archbishop Ghaleb Bader of Algiers is deeply grateful for the witness of all the priests and religious who have lived and worked for decades in Algeria. He remarks, "They never ask about retirement, but simply offer themselves in the service of Christ and his Church".
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