Despite Dangers, Algeria's Tiny Catholic Community Remains Steadfast

JERUSALEM—From the outside world, it is next-to-impossible to contact the Catholic Church in Algeria. It takes two dozen phone calls to reach the office of Archbishop Henri Teissier, who greets all callers with extreme caution. When he learned that this journalist was calling from Jerusalem—the Holy Land—he cordially but firmly refused to conduct an interview via telephone, on the grounds that “Algeria and Israel do not have diplomatic relations.”

Such caution is a necessity in Algeria, a Muslim country at war with itself. An estimated 80,000 Algerians have been slaughtered during the past six years—the vast majority of them civilians.

Embroiled in a fight for independence from France from 1954 until 1962, Algeria again plunged into violence in January 1992, after the Islamic Salvation Front (AIS), a militant Islamic party, won a majority of seats in the initial round of the country's first multi-party elections. Fearing an Islamic revolution—and a threat to its own power base—the authorities canceled the second round of elections and imposed a state of emergency, which remains in place.

According to the human-rights organization Amnesty International, the government security forces resorted to “excessive force” to break up demonstrations by Islamic demonstrators, and threw 10,000 into administrative detention. Many were tortured.

In response, the AIS and other Islamic fundamentalist groups launched a bloody reign of terror that has continued, unabated, for six years. As the violence has escalated during the past year, reports filtering out of Algeria suggest that some of the massacres have been perpetrated by the government's own security forces and state-backed militias.

Caught in the crossfire, Algeria's Catholic community has been deeply affected by the carnage. Already decimated by large-scale emigration during the Independence War and its aftermath, the community has dwindled steadily since 1992, with no more than 2,000 Catholics (some put the figure at several hundred) currently residing in the country. Most of those who remain are priests and religious engaged in humanitarian work.

Since 1992, more than 20 Catholics have been murdered, among them seven Trappist monks who were kidnapped and later beheaded by Islamic extremists in May 1996. Three months later, the ordinary of Oran, Bishop Pierre Claverie, was killed when a bomb exploded at his residence.

Emanuel Sivan, a professor of Islamic studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said that these acts “were almost certainly perpetrated by some Islamic fringe groups as a symbol against what they call ‘crusader imperialism.’” In the eyes of many Algerians, the Catholic Church—particularly missionaries—“were allies of imperialism.”

As horrific as these murders were, Sivan said, “they are only a sideshow in the conflict. The vast, vast majority of those murdered are Muslims.” He added that armed Islamic groups commit massacres in the countryside “first in order to intimidate the population, and second to settle a score with villages allied with the government. And there are certainly cases where the security services commit violence and blame it on the Islamists, to give the Islamists a bad name.”

Mario Giro, a peace activist associated with the San Egidio Community in Rome, an international lay movement of the Catholic Church, said that “everybody is in danger in Algeria. The Christians have been targeted not only because they are Christians but because they are foreigners. About 100 foreigners have been killed in the past few years.”

Although he could not discuss the matter by telephone, in January 1997 Archbishop Teissier, the country's only metropolitan bishop, told a reporter from the Times of London that there is little or no innate hostility against the Catholic Church as such in Algeria. Rather, he said, Christians have been chosen strategically as targets of violence to draw attention to a conflict that was, until recently, largely ignored by the West.

In the same interview, the archbishop, who was born in France, expressed solidarity with Algeria, his home for more than 50 years.

“As a bishop I am responsible for the community,” he said. “I don't see how I could leave it and go away. There are not many of us. We are dispersed all over the country. But we are with Algerian society and we hope it will be possible to stay with it. We hope to continue this communication between Christians and Muslims. We are here for the people.”

Father Pierre Grech, secretary of the bishops’ conference of the Holy Land, said that Archbishop Teissier displayed the same courage during a recent meeting at the Vatican.

“The [arch]bishop told us that there is a great deal of insecurity for the future of the Catholic Church, but that the Christians in Algeria are not even thinking of leaving. They feel they have a commitment and strong bonds with Algeria and the Church there.”

During the meeting, Father Grech said, Archbishop Teissier described the strict security procedures that have become a routine part of Church life.

“Before leaving the church, before going anywhere, the priests and sisters must call the police station to inform them where they are headed and when they expect to return. The police tell them which roads are safe to travel and which aren't .”

The archbishop stressed, however, that the clergy usually travel without armed guards so as to be more accessible to the people they help—virtually all of them Muslims. There is almost no local Catholic community to which to minister.

“The archbishop said there is still work to be done, despite the fact that it is a broken Church. They help the disabled, run libraries, and the priests and sisters and lay people still do a great deal of teaching. They are actively involved in humanitarian work,” Father Grech said.

Algerian Christians, the priest said, are still hopeful that peace will be restored, and with it the once-vibrant Catholic community.

Yet before this can occur, the world community—as well as the Catholic Church—must do much more to stop the bloodshed, according to Mario Giro of the San Egidio Community.

For the past three years, the Community has been trying to convene a meeting between political leaders from all Algerian parties, a move the government has rejected.

Undeterred, Giro said that his organization will continue its efforts “because without dialogue there can be no peace.”

The Pope, too, has repeatedly decried the atrocities being committed in Algeria, not only against Catholics but against the Muslim community.

During his annual “State of the World” address last month Pope John Paul lamented the Algeria crisis. The African nation, he said, “practically every day is thrown into mourning by deplorable massacres. We see a whole country held hostage to an inhuman violence that no political cause, far less a religious motivation, could legitimate. I insist on repeating clearly to all, once again, that no one may kill in God's name: this is to misuse the divine name and to blaspheme.”

“This is a war without many images because journalists are denied access,” Giro said. “It is our responsibility as Catholics and human beings to heighten the war's profile.”

Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.