Saturday, January 28, 2012

Christians in Algeria: The challenge of staying unified and keeping going

How do Christians in Algeria, who represent just 1% of the majority Muslim population, feel about Christian Unity? 

The week of prayer for Christian unity worldwide, includes them too, even though they are only a very small minority in the largest country of the African continent.

‘This is the land of St. Augustine and in the 3rd Century, the Christian faith flourished here” explains Sister Sandra Catapano of the  Missionary Sisters of our Lady of Apostles, who lives in the city of Orano. 

“But after several waves of Islamic invasion, the Christian faith only survived by being passed down from generation to generation. In the last century it has suffered two major losses, first the departure of a large number of French Christians who went home after Algeria was declared independent in 1962 and second later on the loss of assets and jobs. Now it is only a modest presence in the country, socially loved by many and officially tolerated.”

But unexpectedly immigration has revitalized Christianity in Algeria. Six years ago many Christians arrived, they came from African Countries beyond the Sahara desert, they were students or were looking for work. This situation prompted questions and support by the community in Orano and has fuelled the desire of many to understand and interact with other religions.

 “Our parish church, the cathedral of St Maria, has opened its doors to hundreds of Christians, to Evangelical and Pentecostal Protestants, to the Coptic-Orthodox and Coptic-Catholic Egyptians and to thousands of Asian workers. They don’t have an official place of worship or religious representatives here. So we meet in our Church which after mass hosts various prayer groups. More over during the major festivities, after the celebrations, everyone stays behind in the Centre, which is named after our illustrious bishop, Mgr. Pierre Claverie who was killed 1996, to share a festive meal  and different groups take turns to cook. With the help of the authority figures of the different ethnic communities we support a scheme whereby a priest can visit the immigrants who are in hospital. There have been many births in the last few months and many parents, including from other Christian faiths, have asked us to baptize their children.”

The parish pastoral council is also ecumenical, there are 25 members including 5 representatives of other religions and they all participate in the life of the only Christian centre within reach, the cathedral of St Maria. There are also some young people like Tiaret. 

“Last time” reminisced sister Sandra” he told us of his joy in seeing a small prayer group form among the young Protestants. The young people of our community join them is prayer and the Protestants in turn join in with them in Friday communion. This also happens in the city of Tlemcen. It is not unusual to hear people here say that the Catholic Church here in the land of Algeria is like a family to them, a place of integration!”