international analysis and commentary

The Catholic Church and the Arab world: an Algerian view on a troubled relationship

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Never has the election of a new pope raised so many hopes in the Arab and Muslim world. The institution of Al-Azhar, the highest authority in Sunni Islam, located in Cairo, immediately made public its hopes for better relations with the Vatican under the new pope. For its part, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which is based in Saudi Arabia and includes 57 countries, also took an important step. In a message of congratulations to the new pope, the Secretary General of the OIC, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu of Turkey, expressed “the strong hope that the relations between Islam and Christianity become marked by cordial and sincere friendship.” He added, “at this historic moment, the OIC renews a call made eight years ago for a historic reconciliation between Islam and Christianity.”

So the issue is reconciliation – but is it truly possible? For the record, it must be remembered that Pope Benedict XVI had maintained uneasy relations with Muslims, especially since the speech he gave in 2006 in Regensburg, Germany, when he appeared to associate Islam to violence. On that occasion, he specifically cited a Byzantine emperor who described the Prophet Mohammed as spreading “evil and inhuman” ideas.

Dialogue with Al-Azhar was attempted in the course of 2009, before relations deteriorated again following a call from the Pope to protect Christian minorities after a suicide attack against a church in Alexandria, Egypt on the night of December 31, 2010. Al-Azhar then described the complaints by Eastern Christians as “repeated attacks against Islam.”

“A restoration of good relations between the Muslim world and the Vatican depends on the personality of the new pope, his thinking and his vision for reconciliation between religions and peoples,” said Ali Bakr, an expert on Islamist movements from the Al-Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies in Cairo. What will  Pope Francis do to unlock dialogue and appease spirits? In the wake of the Arab Spring, which brought to power Islamist parties whose rhetoric is often directed against the West and the Judeo-Christian world, what room for maneuver will be available to the new head of the Vatican to impose a new vision of dialogue?

Looking specifically at Algeria, the election of Pope Francis was actually received without much fanfare by the media. The press covered the news of Benedict XVI’s resignation and of Francis’s appointment but didn’t delve too deep into it. Political parties (government and opposition) also didn’t spend any time reflecting on this. The only event worthy of notice was the reception by the new pope of former Algerian Minister of Higher Education and former Ambassador to Cairo Mustafa Sharif, also known as a philosopher and supporter of dialogue and tolerance. “This was a special opportunity for me to express the wish to contribute to the dialogue among cultures and religions and to reaffirm that Algeria continues to be a land of hospitality at the crossroads of civilizations,” Sharif said after the meeting with Pope Francis. But there was no official reaction from the government in Algiers. Why?

The relationship between the Vatican and Algeria has always been a story of missed opportunities and unexpected turnarounds.

Algeria and the Vatican: bad legacies

Initially, the Catholic Church had justified the French colonization of Algeria in the name of Christianity. However, it then changed position during the war of liberation by supporting the Algerian struggle for independence. On March 25, 1954, for example, Monsignor Léon-Etienne Duval (Archbishop of Algiers from 1954-1988) gave a speech to protest against the colonial system. In 1956, he came out in favor of the self-determination of the “peoples of Algeria”. After independence, in 1965, Pope Paul VI appointed him Cardinal, to the delight not only of Christians, who wanted to help out the young nation, but also of Algerians who were aware of his devotion to their cause. Upon the return of Léon-Etienne Duval from Rome, he was received with official honors and, although he did not meet the country’s residency requirements, he was given Algerian nationality in 1966.

Nevertheless, after independence the relationship between Algeria and the Holy See soured again. The presence of Christians in the country became gradually less tolerated and Algeria’s involvement in the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973 radically altered society’s standing vis-à-vis the Judeo-Christian world. It was an opportunity for the Islamist movement to impose a more conservative view of things, which culminated, years later, in the outright repression of religious minorities. While across Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, peaceful religious coexistence became more common, Algeria was the exception.

The country fell victim to the kind of fundamentalism – and to the strategy whereby militant teachers were sent across the region to support the process of Arabization – promoted by the Wahhabis and preached by the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo. Reminiscing on those times, Algeria’s Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia commented in a 2011 interview with France Culture radio: “We had the misfortune of receiving a generation of teachers from the Middle East who polluted the minds of our children.”

As a consequence, the more open doctrine of Islam then in use in Algeria, named after and inspired by the teachings of jurist Malik ibn Anas from the eighth century, quickly began losing its influence. Relations between Algiers and the Holy See were poisoned as the Islamist movement gained ground, triggering a terrorist insurgency in the 1990s.

At that point, in order to win its fight against terrorism, the Algerian government chose to offer concessions to the Islamists. It was an understandable attempt to bring about peace after 10 years of violence, but the price to be paid was high: naturally, true freedom of religion was the first to go.

The situation remains dire today. A 2011 report by the US State Department noted that the government in Algiers has been mostly silent on the issue of religious freedom and that the constitutional framework now sets Islam as the state religion and prohibits institutions from engaging in any practice inconsistent with its laws and morality. Non-Muslim groups have long struggled to participate in the country’s civil society, continued the report, as jail sentences of one to three years are easily handed out to people found guilty of proselytizing. While acknowledging that the society at large generally tolerates the presence of people who practice a religion different from Islam, the report highlighted the tendency of Christian converts to keep a low profile for security and legal reasons.

Overall, intolerance has become the mode of governance in Algeria, with the Catholic Church clearly singled out.

In 2006, for example, Algiers promulgated a law regulating forms of worship other than Islam, which the Vatican denounced in 2008, at a meeting of the Committee on Human Rights in Geneva. In the wake of the Arab revolutions, in October 2011, the Holy See further declared that Christianity remains a marginalized religion in Algeria.

Tensions between Algiers and the Holy See have had other incarnations as well. The Vatican’s involvement in Algeria in 1994, when it decided to receive leaders of the Islamist opposition, sparked a diplomatic crisis.

Two years later, in May 1996, Catholic monks in Algeria were murdered by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), an episode exploited by France to further isolate Algeria on the international stage.

The relationship then took another turn for the worse in August 1996, with the assassination of Archbishop Pierre Claverie of Oran by the same armed Islamist group.

Yet, despite these negative legacies, there is hope. We can look for inspiration at Augustine, the Roman-African saint and philosopher whose work contributed to shaping modern concepts of freedom and human nature, faith and reason; and the Emir Abdelkader, an Algerian Islamic scholar and political leader who fought against the French colonial invasion in Algeria and later defended 12,000 Christians in Damascus turning him from foe to friend of the French. These are two examples that allow us today to understand the shared values ​​of Islam and Christianity and believe in the possibility of a return to dialogue.