The new faces of the Church in Algeria

A new generation of women, more cosmopolitan, took over the six sisters of different congregations, killed in Algeria during the Black Decade and beatified on Saturday 8 December in Oran.

Oran, Algiers (Algeria)

From our special correspondent

In Mascara, about 100 kilometers south-east of Oran, the El-Amel center houses a library, a dispensary, sewing and pastry courses, tutoring and, on the top floor, accessible from the terrace … great aerobics room. The girls hurry on Saturday morning in front of the mirrors for their dance class, and the women of the neighborhood three times a week for gym classes, or even yoga classes. Even during Ramadan, when life slowed during the day, they insisted on keeping their gym session later in the evening. Only the sisters started them before midnight …

Because the El-Amel center is held by nuns: two Italians and strangeness in Algeria, an Indian. Members of an Italian congregation, all three are part of this new generation of nuns arrived in the mid-2000s and who took the torch of an almost bloodless Church in Algeria after a decade of atrocious violence between the army and the Islamists. Violence that would have caused the death of about 150,000 Algerians – doctors, teachers, journalists or imams – and also 19 Catholic monks and nuns, including bishop Pierre Claverie, then bishop of Oran, seven Cistercians who live in the monastery of Notre-Dame Atlas of Tibhirine, but also a Marist, four white fathers … and six sisters of different congregations.

Sister Paul-Helene, sister of the Assumption, worked in the Kasbah library in Algiers; both the Augustinian missionaries, sister Esther took care of the handicapped children in the hospital and Sister Caridad controlled the mentoring in their center of Bab-El-Oued; the nuns of Notre-Dame-des-Apôtres, Sister Angèle-Marie and Sister Bibiane taught sewing and embroidery; as for Odette, Little Sister of the Sacred Heart of Charles de Foucauld, he shared the life of the inhabitants of the poor district of Kouba for thirty years and taught Arabic in the diocesan center of Glycines in Algiers.

A little more than twenty years after their death, most of their congregations are still present. But the Algerian Church – of which they are one of the most visible and appreciated faces at the same time – has been profoundly renewed. "We are less white" Sister Bernadette-Michel exclaims, in her small accounting office of the bishopric of Oran, pinching her skin. His congregation of the Daughters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary – founded in Mali – arrived in 2007 to take the place of a Dominican community: they were the first sub-Saharan nuns to arrive in Algeria. A choice that was anything but benign, since the murders of the Black Decade were still in everyone's mind, to the point that their superiors often required a written agreement on their part for the mission entrusted to them. "The integration of the first sisters of my congregation was not simple, in the Algerian society … but also in the Church, then very French-French", Sister Bernadette-Michel admits, without residing.

Today there are African Madagascar, Burkinabe, Malagasy and Togolese nuns, often coming from congregations founded by white nuns or white fathers, both in the house of the good shepherd of Constantine, in the diocesan center of wisteria in Algiers. or at the Pierre-Claverie Center in Oran … They have also found a number of centers for women or shelters for handicapped children, such as in Ouargla, El-Meniaa or even in Timimoun, in the Sahara. Even the oldest congregations – such as Notre-Dame-des-Apôtres – are happy to see young African women take over … in their own way.

Surprisingly, the change is little perceived by the Algerians. "Because we are sisters, they think we are French … Sister Rose can tell them she has never set foot in France, nothing to do, they want their children to learn French with us", Bernadette-Michel likes to readjust her colorful turban. However, this arrival profoundly altered the Algerian Church, all the more radically that the renewal was completely interrupted until the mid-2000s. Recent arrivals, of all ages and origins – are also Polish, Italian or Filipino – "Do not carry the weight of colonization, like us", note the French women. It is also an entire culture that changes: another way of being, getting in touch with Algerians, collaborating with priests and religious …

A trained nurse, she is an Indian sister who volunteered when she arrived four years ago to take over the dispensary held by the Church in Mascara. "Indian", "Hindu", even "Muslim" … his patients do not make a difference. But it does not matter, she visits the young people who gave birth after a caesarean section, takes care of the bedsores of the elderly and sometimes accompanies them even in death. "This cure is an opportunity for me to join the family, to create a very strong connection with them in these painful moments", recognizes the interested party. In this deeply Muslim country, always tempted by withdrawal and in which "The plot weighs very heavy" the meeting with the other, different, is anything but trivial.

Since the end of violence and the arrival of a new generation, the life of the Catholic Church and the way of conceiving her mission have changed a lot. Above all because the faithful – students or sub-Saharan migrants for the most part, but also Algerian Christians – have returned to popularize and animate the Sunday assemblies, asking for catechesis and sacraments … This Church, which after the independence of the cardinal Duval had wanted "At the service of Algeria", always it is, but otherwise. Priests, religious, religious or laity, all combine pastoral activities and commitments in the Algerian society. Long considered an exception, the Algerian Church is more considered by its members as a "laboratory" for future changes in the universal Church.

Building pastoral proposals for expatriate families working in the oil industry, praying with migrants in jail, bringing them packages or visiting them at the hospital and trying to sweeten up a newspaper often bullied and afraid of arrests, but also to animate the libraries or even a kindergarten that welcomes mostly Algerian children … Among all these services, Sister Jeannette Londadjim, the Saint-Joseph Institute, does not want to choose. "When I agreed to come to Algeria, I did not come to meet Muslims, but men" to slice the nun from Chad. During the six years he had just spent in Algiers, his concern was mainly "Do not wait for the Algerians to come to us" but to integrate into society through associative work. Women's rights, rights of migrants, religious freedom … it is on these subjects that the Church is expected today, according to her. "Algerians need these spaces of freedom of expression that we can offer them in our centers", She says.

The recent prohibition of all foreigners working in public institutions complicates the exercise. Since they still had the right, the elders were able to work, together with Algerian colleagues, in hospitals, in centers for the disabled, in public schools or in these "meeting platforms" imagined by Bishop Pierre Claverie after the wave of nationalizations of Catholic institutions. "To see patients, having Algerian colleagues really helps them understand their daily life" recognizes Pascale, a member of the Focolare de Tlemcen, who was able to exercise a few years in the hospital.

To remedy this ban, the sisters naively compete to maintain women's centers of promotion and to imagine new activities. "Some of the women who come to our classes have no other chance to leave their homes, because their husbands do not allow them or because they do not trust anyone, Sister Bernadette-Michel observes. Little by little, they open up, accept to trust in the difficulties of their conjugal or family situation. " At Tizi Ouzou and Mascara, the sisters began training nurses and nurseries. One of them has also designed workshops for autistic or hyperactive children … "The risk is sticking to our current activities, recognize another one We were lucky to find an existing structure, but we must not stop here. If we want the Church to continue her mission here, we must live up to the old: do not do as they do, but to perpetuate their heritage, with who we are. "

Beyond the significance of the presence of the Church in Algeria, it is also its visibility that challenges the new generations. While the old ones had given up, several African nuns decided to keep their religious habit. Others want to make church sites better known, such as university libraries, beyond the circles that visit them. "However, to those we do not like, we know where to find us" observes a young nun. It is not a matter of returning to the choice of a Church "With and for Muslims" but rather to make it known "In his faith and in his prayer, and not only in his works".

"It is the essential human experience of unity beyond the differences that the Church can offer" Monique, a member of the Focolare de Tlemcen, annually organizes a Mariapolis for 130 Muslim and Christian participants. "Those who have lived through the dark years have more fear, and it is normal, I think, for my part, that a certain form of presence, very discreet, was the only one possible at a time, but that is not enough", Advance Anna Medeossi, Italian volunteer of the Catholic delegation for cooperation (DCC) in Constantina then in Oran. "Algeria needs pluralism and therefore visibility who is waving. " The beatification of the new blessed will be the best opportunity.

Anne-Bénédicte HoffnerFortrait: Fethi Sahraoui for La Croix

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