On the occasion of the 100th birthday of the church St. Augustine of Hippo in Algeria, Pope Francis is calling for better relations between Christians and Muslims in a country where Islamic extremism is a primary source of pressure on Christian life.
Pope Francis encourages the Christians, a minority in Algeria representing less than 1% of Algeria’s 38 million inhabitants, “to be witnesses of the Catholic Church, more open to friendship and inter-religious dialogue”,
Algeria is ranked No. 32 in the 2014 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, and gets 54 points (51 points in 2013) because the position of Christians in the country remains as challenging as before, and has even worsened.
The World Watch List is published annually by Open Doors International, a charity that supports Christians who live under pressure because of their faith globally.
The centenary celebrations of the Basilica of St. Augustine Annaba (formerly Hippo), took place in the presence of some 300 Catholics from Algeria and Europe on May 2.
During the service in Annaba, about 600 km east of the Algerian capital Algiers, the special envoy of Pope Francis, Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran, called on Algerian Christians “to live their faith, witness, [be] more open to inter-religious dialogue and to persevere in friendship with the Muslim majority in this country.”
The basilica bears the name of Fr. Augustine, a theologian with a Berber background.
The Berbers are ethnically indigenous to west of the Nile Valley and encompass the history and geography of North Africa.
The envoy of the Pope continued by saying that the mission of the Catholic Church in Algeria is to “be present” and that relations between the Vatican and Algerian authorities are “respectful”. In addition to regular attendees, a representative of the Algerian Minister of Religious Affairs, the President of the Senate, Imams and local authorities of the city of Annaba attended the service.
During the Mass, led by the Bishop of Constantine Fr. Paul Desfarges, prayers were raised in Berber, Arabic, French, English and Swahili, which is spoken by the Sub-Saharan attendees who are students in Algerian universities.
The Algerian church has also been making national news for its large restoration operation which lasted 32 months. Some Algerian media outlets, who tend to report negatively about the Christian community, have criticized the contribution of funds for renovation by the state institutions because they are “meant to be Muslim”. Funding has largely been provided by the Algerian government and local businesses; with the Vatican and private donors also contributing to the project.
Questioned on the government funding by journalists, the representative of the Algerian Minister of Religious Affairs, Abderrazak Sebgag, merely replied that his department is acting on behalf of the “worship in general” before adding: “We could not be missing such an important religious event”.
Algeria recently held presidential elections, and has formed a new government. Click here for pre-election background.