Can Christianity Survive Persecution?
The church in Algeria did not suffer persecution in the strict sense, but it was severely attacked during the years of Islamic terrorism (1991-1999). We shall try to explain the sense of this attack and to show why and how our church was able to live through this difficult period and to rediscover its vitality beyond the times of violence, answering the query “Can Christianity Survive Persecution?”
The Church in Algeria Caught in the Algerian Islamist Crisis (1991-1999)
On 27 December 1991 the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) the Islamist Algerian Party, obtained in the first round of the legislative elections,187 seats while the Fln (National Freedom Front ) which had been in power since independence (1962) only acquired 19 seats. Encouraged by a big meeting of the ‘liberals” (2 January 1992) the army interrupted the electoral process on 11 January 1992 and created a “high state committee” (14 January 1992)”. This new structure and the army were to lead the fight against the Islamic Salvation Front, the party which was dissolved. This decision led to violent conflict between the forces of order and the islamists between 1992 and 1999, profusing between 150,000 and 200,000 deaths. Initially the Christians were not affected by these troubles, but on 29 October 1993, a part of the Armed Islamic Group (gia) condemned to death all foreigners (plus all the Christians and Jews) who would not have left the country by 1 December of that year, 1993.
Attacks Against Our Church (1993-1996)
On 14 December 1993 a unit of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) attacked a workplace of Croatian workers in their camp put up a few kilometres from the Monastery of Tibherrine, killing twelve of them saving those who said they were Muslims. on the following 8 May (1994) in Algiers, the first two religious were murdered in the Kasbah of Algiers, a marist brother and a sister of the Assumption. The commmunique of the Gia which explained their assassination declared that the unit responsible for the crime had brought to an end to the activities of the “two crosses which had spent long years sowing evil in algeria”. Actually they ran a library in a poor quarter of the Kasbah frequented by 1200 Algerian high school students.
Two other murders hit first two Spanish Augustinian missionaries at Bab el oued (Algiers) on 23 October of the same year, followed by four White Fathers at Tizi Ouzou on 27 December 1994. Two other attacks took place in 1995. The first on 3 september, against two religious of Our Lady of the Apostles, the second on 10 November on two sisters of the Sacred Heart. Finally during 1996, on 21 May the seven monks of Thiberrine had their throats cut and on 1 August Mgr Claverie, Bishop of Oran was the victim of the same violence following the explosion of a bomb placed against the door of the bishopric.
Other assassination attempts were made during the same period, but unsuccessfuly, against the White Fathers of Ghardaia (January 1995) and the other against a priest from the Algiers diocese. Two other Catholic Algerians were shot at, and though wounded, escaped death. Two brothers of Jesus were attacked by an armed group which pillaged their convent but sparing their lives. During this period all the Christians, as well as many Algerian Muslims, lived under the threats of the Islamists sometimes through letters, or phone calls. Several offshoots attacked the church and Christians claiming that Algeria, a Muslim land did not have space for non-muslims.
The Church in Algeria, a Church Invited to Disappear (1991-1999)
Between the years 1993 and 1999, the Church in Algeria was therefore caught in the conflict between on the one hand the State and the forces of order, and on the other hand by the armed islamist groups. In this context, most foreign Christian families, who constituted the majority of the 20,000 Catholics in the country, left Algeria between 1991 and 1993, as did most of the members of a small group of Algerian Catholics who had become Muslims. The church had to fall back on the small nucleus of priests, male and female religious, and lay missionaries. In the diocese of Algiers, 19 priests and religious were killed between 1994 and 1996, that is ten per cent of our group, apart from the murdered bishop of Oran and the assassinated seven monks of Thiberrine.
In the Algiers diocese, half of the religious communities had to quit their houses as situations got worse around them. For two years the Holy See hesitated to name a new bishop of Oran to replace the murdered Mgr Claverie.
We could have asked ourselves then if this societal crisis did not imply the death warrant of the new Algerian church, this small community of 20,000 Catholics which had reconstituted itself, after the country’s independence in1962, following the departure of 900,000 Christians living in the country during the period of French colonisation (1830-1962). The embassies were meanwhile urging their nationals to leave the country. Even Algerians friendly to the Church, worried about our security, urged us to leave until the security crisis was over. Some leaders living overseas of congregations of religious working in Algeria took a similar position. In Algeria, bishops and religious superiors left the members of the diocese or of a religious community to decide freely whether to remain or leave.
But at the same time the bishops, and especially Mgr. Claverie, Bishop of Oran, proclaimed loudly: “persons are free to decide, but the Church will not leave“.
This crisis could have brought on, if not the disappearance of the church in Algeria, its contraction to a chaplaincy for foreigners, protected by embassies and deprived of its centuries-old relationship with the Algerian people (White Fathers, spiritual families of Foucauld). The faith of those working permanently in our Church’s mission and their courage allowed our church to remain true to its vocation to ensure the life of the Catholic Church for the Algerian people, a people that is of course Muslim but used, at least in parts of the country to a real relationship with the Catholic church and with Christians.
We would now like to give two types of witness that explain how our church was able to withstand this serious crisis and to rediscover its place in the Algerian city, after the grave security situation and this “persecution”.
Christian Witnesses Giving Their Reasons to Confront the Risks They Ran
If our Church has been able to have a new life after this perilous period, it is primarily due to the apostolic courage of Christians who had decided to face this violence, remaining faithful to their vocation and to their mission in this country. Their death does not cry for vengeance against those who murdered them. On the contrary, it expresses an offering of their life for their brothers and sisters who embrace the Muslim creed retaining their trust without identifying them to the assassins. The time of persecution is hence one to manifest the love of the martyrs themselves for those who persecute them and their people, thus preparing a future of reconciliation when the period of persecution is over.
The testament of Fr. Christian de Chergé expresses magnificently these convictions of faith confronted by these threats but also the sentiments of the members of his monastic community. Many Algerian Christians have found themselves in the certitude of the faith they expressed. Here is the text, now well-known, of his spiritual will, drawn up when the threats of death became more pronounced against our community (1 December 1993).
“When an A-Dieu is envisaged…If it should happen one day – and it could be to-day – that I should be a victim of the terrorism which now seems to want to embrace all foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country…I would like, when the times comes, to have a moment of lucidity which will allow me to ask pardon of God an of my fellow human being , while at the same time to pardon with all my heart the person would strike me down.
I could never wish for such a death; it is important for me to state this. I don’t see how I could in fact rejoice that this people, whom I love, should be accused indiscriminately of my murder. It is too high a price to pay for what will perhaps be called the « grace of martydom », to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he claims to be acting out of fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.
I know the contempt with which Algerians in general have been treated. I know also the caricatures of Islam which a certain type of Islamism encourages. It is too easy to salve one’s conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist beliefs of its extremists. Algerian and Islam are for me something else; they are a body and soul. I have proclaim this enough, I think, considering what I have received from them , finding there so often that straight guideline of the Gospel learnt at my mother’s knees, my very first church, as it is so happens in Algeria and already at that time respectful of Muslim believers.
My death will of course prove right those who has dismissed me as naive and idealistic: « Let him tell us now what it thinks about it » But those people must know that at last my most burning curiosity will be satisfied. I’ll now be able, should it please God, to immerse my gaze in that of the father in order to contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them, completely illuminate by Christ’s glory, fruit of his passion, fill by the gift of the Spirit whose secret joy it will always be to establish communion and to re-establish likeness, while playing with the differences.
For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I give thanks to God who seems to have willed it entirely for that special JOY, against and in spite of all odds. In this THANK YOU in which all of my life is now said, i include, of course, you, friends of yesterday an to-day , and you, O my friends of this place, alongside my mother and my father, my sisters and my brothers and their families, the hundredfold granted as it was promised.
And you also, friend of the last moment, who will not have known what you were doing. Yes, for you, also, I want to say THANK YOU and this A-DIEU to you in whom God’s face can be contemplated. And may be lucky enough to meet again, happy good thieves, in paradise, should it please God, the Father of both of us. Amen! In cha’allah!”
This magnificent testimonial expresses at the same time the spiritual quality of its author as well as the sentiments embraced by all those Christians who had chosen to remain in Algeria during the times of terror. We can also find very similar sentiments in the testimony of faith in the diary written by the youngest monk of the community of Trappist monks of Tibhrine, Fr. Christopher. One finds in him, as in Fr. Christian, the same attitude to risk one’s life through love for the brothers of the Muslim confession. The passages below from his diary so prove.
“August, 1, 1993: “One Pentecost day I signed the official form with your declaration: “I love you”. What’s happening here is a hidden story; it’s a game of love or nothing at all”.
August 22, 1993: “Assassinations in Algiers. After so many others. This note-book cannot remain sheltered from this violence, which pierces me.”
December 31, 1993: “Lord give us the grace to die without hatred in our hearts.”
February, 12, 1994: “What a joy to meet Mohamed, Ali, or Moussa. In them the mystery can be glimpsed simply, purely. It’s a quality of presence: peaceful, gentle, nourishing”
October 24, 1994: “At the door of the church, at the time of the Eucharist which they truly celebrated, two Spanish sisters were assassinated in Bab el Oued…Our church is in tears but her mourning is turned into joy.”
July 25, 1995: “I ask of you to-day the grace to become a servant and to give my life here as a ransom for peace, as a ransom for life …Jesus draw me into your joy of crucified love.”
Testimonials of Muslim Friends of The Church Expressing their Attachment to The Christian Presence in their Country and their Condemnation ff Violence Against Christians
After every murder of our brothers or sisters, we received dozens of testimonials from Algerians who felt it necessary to show us their solidarity during these troubles. As an example of these reactions, I would like to evoke two testimonials. They will allow us to understand that these acts of violence were not the work of the Muslim people, but of extremist groups disavowed by the majority of their co-believers.
This attestation of homage was sent to us after the assassination of the Marist priest, Fr Henri Verges on 8 May 1994 :
“We, A.B. journalist, and M. M., a university teacher, would like to manifest our friendship and fraternity with you in this drama which affects all of us to-day. As for us never forget you are for ever our brothers and sisters. Whatever our differences of dogma , we bellieve that we have the same God . And let’s be clear about it, we love you and that concerns no one else. Once more, contrary to the assassins, we say to you: you are at home here , we love you and we pray beside of you for the repose of the soul of those who have been slaughtered in a cowardly fashion. We dare to remind you that in Notre Dame d‘Afrique, there is inscribed above the black Virgin, “ Pray for us and for Muslims”.
Nous trouvons un témoignage semblable reçu après l’assassinat du P. Jean Chevillars, P. Blanc de Tizi Ouzou, le 27 décembre 1994 : “ Father Jean did not make me a Christian but he led me to God without taking me by the hand, without speaking to me in the language used by religious people. It whas enough for me to watch him live and to meditate on his conduct to be convinced that God’s banner is one, whatever the color which people, here or there, may give it, and I was able to exorcise the evil which possessed me. My reason and my youthful heart gave way before this uprightness and this extreme goodness which I didn’t think that existed among the others. For all this last thirty years , his luminous and all peaceful gaze has never been far from my mind.”
Our Church in Algeria went through a serious crisis between 1991 and 1999. It could have fallen under during this crisis or reduced to a chaplaincy protected by foreign embassies. It was able to withstand this crisis because persons voluntarily decided to remain in their post through fidelity to that very particular vocation to be the Christian community of a Muslim people. It was able to survive also because our Church has always differentiated between those who attack it in the name of an extremist reading of Islam, and the Algerian people, themselves Muslim, which wanted to defend the Church in the name of the same Islam. It wanted to be the Church of these people although Islamic.
It was also able to go through thus grave societal crisis because many Algerian Muslims sustained it during that crisis, and assisted it to regain its place once the crisis was over.
In fact the faithfulness of those permanently working for Church to their vocation during this violent period gave forth a strong sign of Christian solidarity with muslim Algerian society. Thus our Church, in spite of its small numbers, signalled its solidarity with Algerian society in the hour of need. It thus gained a new credibility, notwithstanding the attacks and the calumnies of the extremists. A period of persecution can cause the disappearance of a Church or its contraction in numbers within society. But it could also be the occasion, through the signs given, of a new credibility within the fold of a people, even if they are not Christian.
In 1994, I had to repatriate to France the body of a White Father killed in Algeria. His family greeted me at the airport of Lyon. At the bottom of the steps leading down from the plane, the representative of Air Algerie knelt in homage to him who was the victim of violence. She approached me and she whispered the famous phrase of Tertullian, the North African theologian: Sanguis martyrum,semen christianorum.
It is possible for a Church to survive a time of persecution, even to the extent of gaining a new dynamism. That at least is what we have experienced.
Malta 12 May 2014
Archbishop Emeritus of Algiers