To my surprise, the capital of the predominantly Muslim North African country of Tunisia has a major Catholic cathedral.
Built in 1882, the cathedral in Tunis is dedicated to the great servant of the poor, St. Vincent de Paul. The church honors the saint’s stay in Tunisia after Turkish pirates captured him in 1605 when he was en route to southern France. The pirates sold him into slavery in Tunisia, where he remained captive for two years until he converted his master to Christianity.
Tunis, the capital city, has a major cathedral with an unique blend of styles, including Moorish, Gothic and Byzantine, dedicated to the great servant of the poor, St. Vincent de Paul. Built in 1882, the cathedral is located in the Place de l´Indépendence in the Ville Nouvelle. The cathedral honors the saint´s stay in Tunisia after Turkish pirates captured St. Vincent in 1605 when he was en route to southern France. The cathedral still functions as a church and continues to attract many pilgrims, especially the French, who honor St. Vincent with prayerful visits.
I thought about St. Vincent de Paul’s religious life and experiences in this Muslim country and realized that he engaged in his own type of religious dialogue while in Tunisia. With this in mind, I became more interested in the Church’s work in this regard. Part of the preparations for my first trip to a predominantly Muslim country included a decision to reread some of the Church’s documents about religious dialogue. I found that after visiting a non-Christian country the documents had more meaning and resonated in a more profound way, as it enabled me to reflect on the Church’s initiatives to encourage greater understanding and peace with the Muslim community.
Initiatives such as the Catholic-Muslim Forum, which gathered in Rome for the first time this past November, provide important outreach. The forum between the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Muslim delegation launched its introductory meeting with the theme “Love of God, Love of Neighbor.”
A sampling of the proposals that resulted from this meeting includes the notion of listening as much as speaking in order to deepen mutual understanding.
Traveling to Tunisia, I recognized its unique geographic location as the meeting point between Europe and Africa. This crossroads of peoples is expressed in Tunisian cuisine, the use of the French language, and the arts. Located in North Africa with its neighbors Algeria to the west and Libya to the southeast, Tunisia is the northernmost country on the African continent, with its northern shore bordering the Mediterranean Sea. In ancient and modern times, the country played a prominent role. Names like Carthage, the famous Phoenician city, evoke thoughts of Dido in Virgil’s famous Aeneid. Another connection to Carthage is that St. Augustine studied rhetoric in this North African city before departing for Rome. In more modern times, Tunisia was the scene of intense struggle during World War II.
Although 98% of Tunisia’s population practices Islam, there are small Christian, Jewish and other religious communities that function freely. Unique to North Africa, Tunisia’s people and culture encourage acceptance of other religions. Here synagogues and churches are open without controversy, due to the fact that the country’s constitution recognizes and protects religious freedom. The fascinating town of Djerba, located in the south of Tunisia, is a Jewish enclave where one of the oldest synagogues in the world is located and to which many Jews celebrate a pilgrimage once a year.
Other highlights of any Tunisian trip would have to include Sidi Bou Said, which is a lovely blue and white hilltop village located some 12 miles from the capital and just minutes away from Carthage. The village is located on a cliff overlooking the Gulf of Tunis and offers a spectacular view of the sparkling turquoise Mediterranean. A magical place of meandering streets with something enchanting to look at on every corner, this special village has charmed many painters, such as Henri Matisse and Paul Klee.
The medinas (the non-European parts) in the old Arabic towns are definitely for exploration and very popular with tourists. The souks (town markets) are filled with ceramic pottery and decorative handcrafts. Carpet vendors welcome you into their shops by inviting you to sit at a loom with a lady who is weaving. The weaver I met gave me a glowing smile, reaching out her hand to wrap a wool string around my wrist as a bracelet of friendship. Tunisian carpets have complex geometric designs with intricate patterns. The weavers surely invest considerable time to bring about a successful balance of design and form. Considering all the work involved, I was sure to show my enthusiasm and appreciation for her work. Contemplating such craftwork can certainly lead one to conclude that this work of the hands enables a peaceful pride in creating and maintaining traditions. The owner of the store brought to my attention the inspiration for the carpets: The women improvise the carpets’ designs from the decorative tiles they have observed in the mosque.
All of these experiences brought about a respect and appreciation for a culture and religion different than my own. As the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue’s forum recently summarized, “We are convinced that Catholics and Muslims have the duty to provide a sound education in human, civic, religious and moral values for their respective members and to promote accurate information about each other’s religions. We profess that Catholics and Muslims are called to be instruments of love and harmony among believers, and for humanity as a whole, renouncing any oppression, aggressive violence and terrorism, especially committed in the name of religion and upholding the principle of justice for all.”
My trip to Tunisia affirmed my support and appreciation for the Church’s approach to these ideals and important initiatives. As I knelt in prayer in St. Vincent de Paul Cathedral in the bustling city of Tunis, I began to understand the importance of interreligious dialogue, while witnessing that the saint’s charitable arms continue to reach out to the poorest of the poor in this faraway land.
Jennifer Roche writes
from Washington, D.C.
Cathedral of St. Vincent de Paul
(71) 336 404
Planning Your Visit
At the cathedral, located in the Place de l’Indépendence in the Ville Nouvelle, there are weekday Masses in French at 7:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., and a Saturday evening Mass, for Sunday, at 6:30 in French. On feast days, there is a Mass in Italian at 9 a.m. and in French at 11 a.m. There is also St. Joan of Arc, at 1 Jerusalem St., with Sunday Mass at 10:30 a.m. in French or Polish. In Carthage, St. Cyprian has Sunday Mass at 10 a.m.
Getting around Tunis is not a problem, as the people are friendly and helpful. Although Arabic is Tunisia’s official language, many Tunisians speak French due to its colonial history. English is also fairly well understood in the main tourist areas.