However, the principal sign remains the existence of our small Christian communities, which at times are very limited in size or reduced to the scale of a community of the petits frères in Assekrem (1) or a community of female religious in the highlands or a community in a working-class district. Many people in Algeria, although they are Muslims, are thus proud to have 'their Church' or anyway to have some Christians amongst them or a community of female religious.
As a Christian minority in a Muslim society, talk takes second place for us because the apologetics and polemics of the past have for some time meant that the doors to dialogue have been closed. We have to begin with acts of witness. It is deaconry, service to one's neighbour, that is the first dimension of communication. In Algeria today this expresses itself through the following channels: taking care of the handicapped, which implements respect for human dignity and the reintegration into society of a category of human beings that is particularly disadvantaged; actions on behalf of young people and women that in relation to a category of people who are often disadvantaged within the country (learning trades, the training of women, the journal El Hayat, etc.); the training of young people to compensate for deficits within the family environment; support for schools and universities (five thousand students of medicine enrolled in the University of Algiers alone); and help for elderly people with the support of the Muslim population. Another privileged sphere for such witness at the level of facts is that of cultural initiatives: conferences, translations, and the development of relationships beyond language differences. To these should also be added spiritual sharing within some groups.
Just one example is sufficient to evoke these multiple aspects of deaconry: a woman who for forty years has been engaged in educational activity in her district. One of her former pupils writes about her: 'she still takes part in this association of mutual family and social help which is slowly making small forward steps in the country, always trying to secure some rooms, some small things, from insensitive local authorities. That woman is simply made of gold. For our young people of Leveilley, of Oued Ouchaïda and of many other working-class districts she was our first teacher. And when you meet her today and go to see her, still concerned and committed as she is to service to the poorest of the poor, one realises that she will never cease to be our teacher' (2).
The Message of John Paul II
It is certainly the case that our Church of Algeria first of all nourishes the faith of her faithful. But this Church is increasingly becoming, like John Paul II himself, a sign for all the people of Algeria, at least for those who know us. This is the application of that sacramental nature of the Church to which the Second Vatican Council referred. What has been said at a general level about the sign that was the life of John Paul II has been shown to be especially true in Algerian society ever since the mass media announced the illness of the Pope and then his death. In a country in which the journalists are both Muslim and write for Muslims, all the newspapers brought out the meaning of the life and the message of John Paul II on a large scale.
The President of the Republic of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, wrote as follows: 'an ardent defender of good causes and a symbol of wisdom has died after a long journey that gained him the admiration and the respect not only of the monotheistic peoples of the world but also of the international community as a whole. I would like to pay tribute to him because he knew how to defend, at the price of his health and with risks to his life, the principles to which he was deeply bound and from which he never distanced himself, courageously standing out against the atrocities of war and violence and urging everywhere peace, brotherhood and concord amongst men'.
The president of a local association of Boumerdès wrote to us as follows: 'his death was not only a loss for Christianity but for the whole of mankind. He knew how to transmit to those who listened the meaning of repentance and forgiveness. He knew how to touch hearts and to exhort men to greater love and friendship so that peace in the world could become a reality...It is now up to men of good will to continue his work so that men may become brothers to one another'.
A third testimony expresses similar reactions: 'the loss of Pope John Paul II touches the whole world. For me, this gentleman was a source of pride for Christianity and the whole world. I strongly hope that Muslims will have such a man of this character, of this wisdom and purity'.
Hundreds of similar reactions could be related. They demonstrate that the sign of the life and the message of John Paul II was seen and heard by a very large number of Algerian Muslims. They also show that our communities are at the side, through their presence, of the Universal Church. In Muslim societies in which for centuries the world has been divided between infidels and believers, this recognition of the values present in the existence of John Paul II is a sign that various things are changing, above all if one takes into account those Muslim apologetics which never cease to declare that Islam is a religion that does not have a clergy and which also accuses Christians of substituting the worship of God with the veneration of their hierarchies.
The life of the Church in Algeria offers an opportunity to begin a new season of mission, that of displaying Christian witness to believers who belong to another religion. This is not a matter of denying the possibility of Muslim conversions to Christianity. They exist; indeed, now more than in the past. This is a matter, more, of trying to discover how the gift that God gave to us through the life of Christ can become, amongst other things, a sign for non-Christians, and more specifically for Muslims. For that matter, this movement is reciprocal because we must discover in our Muslim brothers examples of faithfulness to the call that God makes to them within the innermost part of their consciences, and to derive thereby witness to support our faithfulness to God.
Too often we have confiscated the face of Christ, almost as if it could bring a message of life only to Christians and those receiving the catechesis. Jesus and his Gospel are gifts of God for all men of good will, even for those who remain within their religion of origin. As a Christian I can find signs of God in the life of Gandhi. Why can a Muslim not find signs of God in the life and message of Jesus? A Muslim who reads the parable of the prodigal son or the parable of the Good Samaritan or the account of the episode of the adulteress can accept the calls inscribed in these texts as examples of encouragement to enter at a personal level the spiritual approaches that these texts suggest.
For far too long the sphere of Christian witness has been confined to the limited circle of the baptised and those receiving the catechesis. And these people certainly have a full right to this witness. But now it should also be discovered that there is a gift of Christ for those who at the present time remain within the religion of their fathers but who are sensitive to the special signs that the Church and Christians direct to them. An editor of an Islamist newspaper who met a Christian went to him after some time to say very happily: "I found this phrase in the Gospel that changed my way of seeing things 'if you love only your brothers, what is special about that? Do not the pagans do the same?'". Are these words of Jesus not valuable for every man, whether Christian or not? It was exactly this that a girl, a friend of the Christ of Oran, wanted to say to us when she contextualised the differences that dogmas establish and referred to the concrete faithfulness that should be put into practice together with others: 'in Algeria people's blood has been mixed. This is what Pierre Claverie, who mixed his blood with the blood of Mohammed, believed. There are no special Christians or special Muslims: there is God's revelation to man'.
Encounter for Reconciliation
It has too often been the case that history has placed Christians and Muslims in opposing camps. Jesus sent us out to be neighbours to those from whom we could have kept our distance. In the parable of the Good Samaritan he asks us: 'which of the three, in your view, was a neighbour to the man who was waylaid by thieves?' Muslims, who in recent years have been taught that the world is divided between the faithful and infidels and have often been advised not to frequent infidels, thus discover that one should not take the place of God and encourage His creatures to be against one another. In the same way, Christians who have been educated with the same prejudices learn in Algeria to make the overcoming of boundaries a place for their faithfulness to God: 'love one another as I have loved you'. And thus, despite centuries of prejudices, we have been invited to family celebrations or official events. We have been photographed at marriages at the side of the spouses. Acts of respect for Christian feast days and festivities have increased in number. First of all under the heading of friendship, certainly, but also because they want to say to us after a certain fashion: 'we are not Muslims closed up within ourselves'. John Paul II wrote in Redemptoris Missio, providing the first definition of the Kingdom of God in a papal text, the following words: 'the Kingdom's nature, therefore, is one of communion among all human beings with another and with God'. Thus wherever man establishes relations of communion, the Kingdom of God comes to him. And the Pope continues in this vein in the same document when he states that the Kingdom 'grows gradually as people slowly learn to love, forgive and serve one another' [Redemptoris missio, n. 15].
Many pose questions to themselves to understand the meaning of our presence in a Muslim country. First of all we observe that this is not primarily a 'presence' but 'encounter', 'sharing', and 'communication' that God entrusts to us to that reconciliation, reciprocal knowledge, friendship and communion can be achieved. A young Muslim woman, a medical doctor, wrote after the crisis that we went through together during the Islamist period: 'I think that God wants the presence of the Church in our land of Islam... You are a bud on the tree of Algeria which, if God wants, will open towards the divine light'.
It is absolutely remarkable that in weighing the scales of the ministry of John Paul II his commitment to inter-religious dialogue is almost unanimously emphasised, beginning with the initiatives of the Pope at Assisi and continuing with his engagements during his journeys in Muslim countries, such as, for example, his meeting with eighty-thousand young Moroccan Muslims who had been placed around him by King Hassan II, not to speak of his visit to the mosque of Omayyade in Damascus and many other similar initiatives.
With respect to inter-religious dialogue, many people were concerned when they heard that Benedict XVI had been chosen to succeed John Paul II. They feared the positions expressed by Cardinal Ratzinger in the declaration Dominus Jesus, a text that in reality did not directly concern relations with other religions but primarily dwelt upon relations at an ecumenical level. People have forgotten about another document drawn up under the new Pope and which is much more relevant to the subjects discussed in this paper than Dominus Jesus. I am referring to the document of 1996 published by the International Theological Commission of which Cardinal Ratzinger was president. This text declares: 'At the end of the second millennium, the Church is called to bear witness to the risen Christ until the ends of the earth [Acts 1:8], in vast cultural and religious worlds. Inter-religious dialogue is natural to the Christian vocation, it is written into the living Tradition of the mystery of salvation of which the Church is the universal sacrament. It is an act of this tradition' [n. 116].
Our Church feels called upon by this reflection, and willingly adopts, in order to express her vocation, this other sentence to be found in the same document: 'Inter-religious dialogue acquires its meaning in the economy of salvation: it does more than take up the message of the Prophets and the Mission of the Precursor; it is based upon the event of salvation carried out by Christ and tends towards the second advent of the Lord. Inter-religious dialogue is situated eschatologically in the Church' (n. 115).
(1) Assekrem is a region in the hills of Hoggar where Charles De Foucauld retired to a hermitage [editor's note].
(2) Mgr Henri Teissier, Chrétiens en Algérie, un partage d'espérance, Desclée de Brouwer, 2002, p. 230.