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Martine de Sauto, Henri Teissier, un évêque en Algérie. De l'Algérie française à la crise islamiste

Martine de Sauto, Henri Teissier, un évêque en Algérie. De l'Algérie française à la crise islamiste (Henri Tessier, a bishop in Algeria. From French Algeria to the Islamist crisis), Ed. Bayard, Paris 2006

In this biography of Mgr Henri Teissier, archbishop emeritus of Algeria since 2008, the author, a journalist with French Catholic daily La Croix, allows us to read the conversations she had with him during her frequents visits to Algeria. In that period of time she collected the faithful, measured and sincere testimony of a man of the Church who chose a country, Algeria, and its people and became a leader in Islamic-Christian dialogue and a great observer of the presence of the modern Church in the House of Islam.

 

In a chronological account, the author lets us see Monsignor Tessier's personal, religious and spiritual journey, one that is so closely connected to Algeria's historical and political evolution, a country to which he is so much attached that he became an Algerian citizen in the early years of independence, and in so doing chose to share its destiny. Implicitly, through him the existential journey of a religious community is also traced, that of the Church of Algeria.

 

Monsignor Tessier's life and his deeds can be summed up in some unwavering principles, a vocation for the Gospel and Algeria; an apostolate for friendship and faithfulness, and a healthy curiosity mixed with respect for the Other.

 

In spite of his reserve and discretion, we can feel in a lucid, clear and no non-sense analysis of Algerian history a unique, sincere and unconditional attachment to his adopted country; a passion he inherited among other things from his predecessor, Cardinal Léon-Etienne Duval.

 

The book is like a play in three acts. In the first act we meet the young seminarian as he discovers a country, Algeria, and falls in love with it. At the time of his ordination for the diocese of Algiers in 1955, the Algerian War of Independence broke out in full, first act in a tragedy that would end for sure with the country's independence and the birth of the young Algerian Republic, but would also see a lot of blood flow and many personal and collective dramas unfold: countless civilians die, French Algerians forced to leave their native land and a helpless Church compelled to see the loss of its community and official status.

 

The second act began when the newly-established Algerian Republic took its first tentative steps: implementing development policies, engaging in large-scale industrialisation and adopting pan-Arab orientation, all moves of a nation still trying to find itself.

 

Since then and faced with a drastic drop in membership, the Algerian Church had to rethink its mission, revise its priorities in the new social and political context and redefine its vocation in a country that was rediscovering its Arab and Muslim past.

 

In just a few years Monsignor Tessier would be appointed bishop of Oran, a diocese he would run from 1972 to 1981. In so doing he made definitive his choice for Algeria; this way he opted for a Church that would be in the service of the Algerian people. In a tireless, passionate and unpretentious way, albeit one that was still effective and real, he immersed himself in socially relevant activities in favour of the Algerian people, weighed down by so many everyday problems.

 

In the early post-independence years Monsignor Tessier was a front row spectator to the painful transformation of the country, burdened by internal troubles and agitated by political-military intrigues which pushed so many disenchanted, disheartened and desperate people to grab for pipedreams, falling into clutches of the fundamentalist monster.

 

Indeed the dark decade of the 1990s, the third act in the Algerian tragedy, will constitute for Monsignor Tessier his most serious trial. Recently appointed archbishop of Algiers, he became a frightened witness to the oppressive events of October 1988, a mere preamble to a greater tragedy still to come.

 

As Algeria slipped towards fundamentalist violence and civil war, Monsignor Tessier, despite threats and dangers, refused to leave the country when it was at its lowest point. One with his fellow Algerians whose friendship and sincerity he has never doubted, he reiterated his conviction that in Algeria's ongoing tragedy, the blood shed by Christians and Muslims was the same. For him the tragic destiny of Monsignor Claverie and his driver, Mohamed, was evidence of shared martyrdom.

 

As he proclaimed without equivocation his compassion for Algerian civilians, he echoed Cardinal Dubal's certainty that the "Algerian Church is a place where meeting is possible, a hidden witness to God's presence." In refusing easy generalisations that do not differentiate ordinary Algerians from the extremist hordes who sow terror and whose victims are first and foremost Algerian, he pleaded for reconciliation among Algerians, urging the various parties to try the path of peace.

 

Even if the fratricidal war played itself out behind closed doors, Monsignor Tessier's mission and through him that of the Algerian Church was clear and unequivocal. It was to accompany the Algerian people during this dramatic moment in its history, steadfast in the Church's commitment to life, witness and love, faithful to the vocation of the Universal Church.

 

At the root of this vocation there is but one certainty. In their hour of trial Algerians can "recognise a common humanity in Christians", one that makes us all brothers and sisters. From this comes the need to experience the evangelical presence in the time of crisis and during the storm, not after it is all over. In this Algerians will be able to recognise their own. Because, ultimately the "Church has not chosen to be an outsider but has opted instead to be Algerian." Choosing to live in Algeria during its most tragic hours is but "a certain way to relate" each moment in daily life to the Gospel stories. "From this rises the spiritualness of our experiences, transforming each situation into the Word of God and his Appeal."

 

Throughout his life Monsignor Tessier never stopped expressing his faithfulness by binding his life to Algeria in communion with its people, however tried and wounded they may be in the flesh and that of their children; a people which in turn has always shown him their support and solidarity, most notably in the moments of greatest tragedy; a people that is real and that through pain has learnt the need to "respect the Other's life and prayer so as to build one humanity."

 

This is a book that can help the reader understand how the Church can bear witness, inspire respect and arouse gratitude as it reaches out to others. Through its presence, however discrete or fragile it may be but always passionate, committed and curious, the Church can manifest its great friendship and sincere concern for the fate of others.

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