Algeria: Hope in a Hidden Church

Author: ZENIT


Algeria: Hope in a Hidden Church

Interview With Scholar on the Decline of Christianity in Africa

ALGIERS, Algeria, 27 SEPT. 2010 (ZENIT)
The Church in Algeria is considered by many to be a shadow of her former self. In the fifth century, more than 700 bishops were scattered across North Africa. Today, Christians make up less than 1% of the total population. 

Professor Camille Eid, professor at the University of Milan, and a journalist, author and expert on the Middle Eastern Churches, speaks in this interview given to the television program "Where God Weeps" of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, about the decline of the Church in Algeria and signs of hope for its renewal.

Q: Can you give us a very brief history of the Church in Algeria? It was once a flourishing Church? 

Eid: That’s right. In the first century we had 700 bishops in North Africa. The Arab conquest provoked a gradual decline, though even up to the 10th and 11th centuries we have testimonies about letters sent to Rome, to the Pope, so we had Christian communities until this period. So for three centuries after the Islamic conquest we had Christian life, but gradually declining because we had the Donatist heresy — where people embraced a certain heresy against Catholicism. After that the Aghlabid Dynasty — an Islamic dynasty that imposed conversion to Islam after the Norman Conquest, or re-conquest of Sicily. As retaliation, they imposed on all Christians in North Africa to embrace the Islamic religion. 

Q: What year are we talking about? 

Eid: We’re talking about the 11th and 12th century when every presence of Christianity in the whole of North Africa, not only Algeria, but also Tunisia and Morocco, was extinguished. 

Q: The Church became a catacomb Church? 

Eid: Right. So we had, after that, to wait until the arrival of Christianity once again, unfortunately under the guise of colonialism. When the French arrived in North Africa, they encouraged their citizens to go and settle there; buying farms and we had an increase in the Christian presence to about 900,000, which is a big increase. 

Q: Which is a very big increase in a very short period of time. Then there was another decline?

Eid: Right, but we have to take note that this Christian presence was, first of all, under the influence of the French Republic, which was very much influenced by Free Masonry and they ordered the Church and the first bishops of Algiers to prohibit the local Muslim population from entering the Church, not printing the Gospel and other Christian literature in Arabic, not admitting any Muslim to any assemblies, not to accept priests coming from Syria or Lebanon that spoke Arabic — in short Islam for Algerians and Christianity for the French. So it wasn’t a very active presence of a missionary Church during this period. There were 900,000 but it was like an apartheid system. 

Q: And then what happened? There was a rapid decline? 

Eid: Right and after 1962 all the French — "Pieds-Noirs" (black feet) — returned back to France and after that we had only these few thousand remaining foreign workers working in the oil and gas fields until today.  

Q: And just to be precise, 1962 was the war of independence from France? 

Eid: Yes, the war began in 1954 and ended in 1962 when Algeria became an independent country. In one or two years all Christians went back to France and this reduced the Christian presence to less than 1% of the whole population. 

Q: Christians today number about 40,000 out of a population of some 33 million. How are Christians viewed today in Algeria? 

Eid: Algeria is a socialist country with some ideas of freedom and democracy even if under a one party system. The fundamentalist or radical Islamists are propagating a little bit within the society, particularly in the major cities, the issue of women wearing the hijab or niqab, which have nothing to do with the Algerian costumes because Algerian women used to wear oriental clothes and not the niqab that covers the face and the hands. It is very clear that you have two points of view toward Christians: You have the intellectuals, because many Algerians continue to use the French language in their daily lives; they have this French mentality and they have this approach toward Christians in a more clear and limpid view than the Arabic fundamentalist. 

Q: Where is this fundamentalist movement coming from? 

Eid: From Saudi Arabia. When the Saudi Arabian government went and recruited teachers, nurses and doctors during the oil and petroleum boom in the 50s and 60s in the Gulf States, they [Saudi Arabia] requested specifically nationals from Egypt and Algeria. When these professionals came back [to Algeria] they brought back with them Islamic fundamentalist ideas; Wahhabism or Salafism as it is actually called. So the Salafists created associations, infiltrated the trade unions, and student unions at the university and after that they became the majority. And in the election in 1990 they won and were one step away from taking power and then the war broke out between them and the army. 

Q: When was this? 

Eid: In the 1990s we had a war, which caused more than 200,000 deaths. 

Q: Where is the source of the center of activity — or the source of thought — coming from now? Previously, Algeria was oriented toward Europe through France. Now for example, it shows that the center of thought is coming from the Gulf and because it’s coming from the Gulf, are the Algerian people starting to understand the relations between West and Islam through the prism of the Middle East and the problems that are occurring in the Middle East?

Eid: Yes, we can say more but first: until 20 or 30 years ago, most people were oriented toward France because of the cultural and commercial and trade relations. Now Algeria is becoming oriented toward the Islamic world and the central question is the Palestinian issue — the Israeli-Arab conflict. So we have many Algerian jihadists going to war in Iraq, the Caucasus — Chechnya or in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which they claim is a holy war. So this indicates that all these ideas that are very influential originate from Saudi Arabian Wahhabism or Salafism and have produced this fundamentalist approach, which is now being exported to other countries and fronts, which are very distant from Algeria. 

Q: We’ve been talking about different strains of Islam that are now playing themselves out on the fields in Algeria. For example, you mentioned Wahhabism and so on. Can we say that, at the moment, the greater tension for the domination of Algeria is not between Christians and Muslims but between Muslim and Muslim?

Eid: That’s right. The problem in Algeria is that it has supported a socialist military regime after independence, the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale). There was never a democracy. So we are in a transition phase and we hope that real democracy will emerge because they have approved a multi-party system. They are open toward the West and to all religions. The government also wants to tame the fundamentalist. The government wants to be perceived as an ally to religion so they have introduced laws to show that it is more Islamic than the fundamentalist.

Q: And at the same time trying to be moderate? 

Eid: Yes, but in the end, it becomes more restrictive for the life of the Church for example, the law or ordinance of 2006 is really very restrictive. The law prohibits activities outside the church facilities. 

Q: What is this law in 2006 that was introduced, just for clarity? 

Eid: The law imposed upon the Church not to celebrate any rite outside the indicated places of worship. The law limits such practices to within the places of worship. If a priest goes to the countryside where there is no church facility and where you have a community of 20 to 50 people, you can not celebrate because there is no officially indicated place of worship. 

Q: So it [Christian celebration and faith] has to occur within the compound? 

Eid: Right, and secondly, any activity that has the perception by the government to have the hallmark of proselytizing — proselytizing is such a big word — so any attempt to convert a Muslim by word, or by action is punishable by a fine or imprisonment. 

Q: So this is the consequence. In 2006 this first law was introduced and restricted the Church to doing her activities only within her compound. In 2008, there was another enforcement, not a new law, but an enforcement, which prohibited Christians from proselytizing, which means prohibition of proclaiming the faith on the streets openly. This is another restriction. So what you are saying, if I understand correctly, is that in Algeria the Muslims have to be more Muslim than the Muslims? 

Eid: Yes, but it is more complicated than that. You have the Catholic Church in Algeria as an official institution. You have many evangelical groups — without (formal) churches and these groups are proselytizing in the Berber areas, in Kabylie, and everyday, according to official census, six Algerians are converted to Christianity by these evangelical groups. So the government by implementing this law has done harm to the Catholic institutions and not the evangelicals …

Q: Because the Evangelicals are not as structured as the Catholic Church. 

Eid: Right. You have the domestic churches developing in the Berber area or Kabylie and you have the institution. The government restricts entry visas to Catholic priests. They confiscate all Catholic literature coming from France: Magnificat, Prions en Eglise, at the airport. So the people carrying this literature often say to the officials that these are for personal use. 

Q: So the big target is the Catholic Church and they are the ones that suffer the consequences? 

Eid: The Catholics are the victims and it proves that the party has no opinion (understanding) about Christianity. 

Q: You’ve mentioned that the government has admitted that there are conversions occurring every year? 

Eid: Six every day! We have counted from 10,000 to 15,000 converts from the Algerians of Berber origin. 

Q: This is not an official declaration because probably the government does not want to admit that there are more? 

Eid: There are no official censuses, but we do know that, among the Algerian communities in France particularly the Berbers, we have converts. We also know that the Berbers were forcibly converted to Islam. 

Q: So it’s not natural for them? 

Eid: It’s not natural and maybe they consider the re-conversion to Christianity as a form of opposition…

Q: What you are saying is quite extraordinary. What is the life of a Muslim convert in Algeria? 

Eid: All things considered, you have entire villages in the Berber area, converting and living this new life that is really strange in a Muslim country because the phenomenon has maybe reached a certain level that the government is unable to oppose this resistance. 

They [the government] is trying to limit it a bit but they know that it is the Algerians themselves who are converting to Christianity without outside influence from foreign missionaries like before. Coming from the inside. In the city of Oran, two years ago they arrested six Algerians distributing the Gospel. So, for the first time, we have a mission activity conducted by Algerians and not by foreign missionaries — French or Spanish — missionaries. This is new. 

Q: The former Archbishop of Algiers, Henri Teissier, said he has “witnessed the slow death of the Church."

Eid: The presence of the Catholic Church in Algeria cannot be circumscribed to numbers because the impact upon the society is tremendous. For instance, the care the Church offers to the handicapped and old people. All jobs Muslims do not care to do in the hospitals, the religious do it. In the universities and all fields of social life — with women, with young people, publishing, translating, literature — all these are done by the Church and this has a tremendous impact upon Algerian society — and from the less than 10,000 Catholics living there. 

Q: Is there a risk that the Church could face extinction, at least the Church, as we understand it in terms of the structures and the Catholic faith as we understand it? 

Eid: Maybe yes. Maybe the Church not only as an institution as we know it; the Diocese of Algiers, Oran or Adrar, which is the Saharan part of Algeria with three dioceses but as the Church of foreigners. The foreigners are leaving, but the Algerian local Church is experiencing a revival that has not happened since the seventh or 10th century. So after 1,000 years we have local Christians reviving a new life for the Church. No more French, Spanish or Italians.

Q: It is a sign of hope? 

Eid: Yes, and in addition to this we have many African students from the Sub-Saharan countries who come to Algeria to study and they are contributing to the life of the Church. So we have a replacement; the Europeans are departing and are being replaced by Africans and by locals who are Arabs and Berber Christians. 

Q: So it’s a natural replacement and probably a healthy one? 

Eid: Yes, and sure, I consider that a sign of the Holy Spirit working. 

Q: So it’s a sign of hope? 

Eid: Yes, it is a sign of hope because, for the first time, we have, not only local or Arab bishops like we have seen recently; the new bishop of Algiers is Jordanian and the neighboring country of Tunisia, we had, first, Bishop Fouad Twal and now Bishop Maroun Lahham instead of French bishops in all these countries of North Africa. We also have Arab and Algerian communities and not foreign communities consisting of Europeans or Americans. 

Q: What can we do? What can the Catholics of the universal Church do? 

Eid: Pray, pray and to remember that these countries were not originally Muslim; they were converted to Islam after centuries of Christianity that flourished in these lands. So it won’t be strange to go back to their roots, these Christian roots. I have known, here in Italy, an Algerian couple who converted and when they were baptized, they chose two particular names: The husband chose the name Agostino and the wife chose Monica because these two saints — St. Augustine and St. Monica — were of Algerian origin, from Hippo in Algeria.

* * *

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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