Algeria, The Catholic Church in
ALGERIA, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
A republic in northwest Africa, Algeria is bordered on the east by Tunisia and Libya, on the south by Niger and Mali, on the west by Mauritania, Western Sahara, and Morocco, and on the north by the Mediterranean Sea. A semi-arid climate and predominately desert conditions limit Algeria's agricultural output to wheat, barley, and olives. Fortunately, large oil and natural gas reserves began to provide the country with a stable economy during the second half of the 20th century. Nevertheless, despite the healthy revenues generated by such exports, Algeria remained burdened by high unemployment and widespread poverty into the 21st century.
Ecclesiastically, a metropolitan archdiocese is located in Algiers, with suffragans at Constantine and Oran. The diocese of Laghouat, which encompasses most of inland Algeria, was created in 1955 and is immediately
subject to the Holy See. Established in 1901 as the Prefecture of Ghardaïa, two decades later it was detached from the Prefecture of the Sahara and the Sudan; it served the region as a vicariate from 1948 to 1955.
A land of Berber tribes, Algeria had early Phoenician settlements on its northern coast and came under the sway of carthage before it flourished under Roman rule as Numidia and Mauretania Caesarea. It suffered from donatists and was conquered by invading Vandals, who were besieging Hippo when St. Augustine died there (430). Byzantine rule after 533 restored order to the area, but the tribes would not accept the Christianity of the eastern Roman Empire. The Arab conquest of 709 brought with it Islam, which the tribes accepted.
The few Christian communities in Algeria having ties with Rome sustained themselves until c. 1150; Gregory VII appointed a bishop of Bône in 1076. Missionaries, especially those from Spain, cared for Christian captives, soldiers, and merchants along the Algerian coast, but by 1512 there were so few Christians in the region that a bishop of Constantine appointed by Julius II did not venture to occupy his see. Beginning in the late
16th century, French and Spanish Trinitarians and French Vincentians cared for Christian slaves in Algeria and functioned as French consuls. However, the state of things had little changed; the Vincentian Vicariate Apostolic of Algeria (1650–1827) made little effort to convert Muslims or Christian renegades.
Spain attempted to hold the Algerian coast (1505–29), ximÉnez de cisneros restoring the See of Bougie and planning to restore that of Oran until the Mediterranean was abandoned as a field of expansion in favor of the New World. The coastal city of Oran, a refuge of Moors forced out of Spain, remained under Spain's control (1509–1708, 1732–91), but the rest of the Algerian coast became overrun by Barbary pirates under the loose hand of the Ottoman Empire. In 1830 French troops marched on Algiers, the main port from which the pirates had menaced European coasts and shipping, and from there took control of the country.
The bishopric of Algiers (Roman Icosium ), one of many small early Christian dioceses in North Africa, was restored by the French in 1838 and became a metropolitan archdiocese in 1866. Another early Christian see, Constantine (Roman Julia Cirta ), which united to its title that of hippo, became, together with Oran, the suffragan sees in 1866. Algiers cared mostly for immigrant French settlers and was deterred by the government from extending its activity to the Moslem population until Cardinal lavigerie, founder of the missionaries of africa and missionary sisters of our lady of africa (1868), became archbishop (1867–92). The first bishop of Algiers and the first bishop of Constantine resigned because of financial difficulties. Jesuits began missionary work in Kabylia (1839), which had been conquered in 1857. Vincentians returned in 1842 to direct seminaries in Algiers, Constantine, and Oran.
Remaining under French control despite several uprisings, Algeria fell into the hands of the Vichy government during World War II. In November 1942 it was occupied by Allied forces; the following two decades found Algerians in bloody revolt against waning French colonial influence. Algeria finally won independence on July 5, 1962, and was renamed the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria. A coup d'etat followed in 1965, foreshadowing the political instability that would haunt the new nation.
Independence prompted a mass exodus of the European population; between 1962 and 1964 more than 800,000 Catholics left the country. Under a constitution first made effective in November 1976, Islam was declared the state religion, although discrimination on the basis of religion was prohibited and Catholic practices were tolerated. All students, even those of non-Islamic faiths, attending primary and secondary schools were required to study Islam; private schools were not permitted to operate within Algeria. While public assembly to worship a faith other than Islam was prohibited by law, the government continued to tolerate Catholic services at the cathedral in Algiers and elsewhere.
During the 1990s Algeria underwent drastic political changes that dramatically altered the country's religious landscape. On the eve of a national election in 1991, the electoral successes of the radical fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) prompted the government to postpone the election process in an attempt to halt further FIS inroads. While censored elections were eventually resumed, FIS candidates were forced underground; in response sympathizers turned to violence, directing their wrath at those they considered impediments to their control of the government, primarily moderate Muslims and Christians. Terrorists took the lives of more than 100,000 people between 1992 and 2000, targeting religious, political, and random civilians for death. Many Catholics were among their victims. By 2000 the Catholic population had been reduced to approximately 20,000 (one source put it at 3,000), only a fifth of their number 40 years earlier. Catholics formed communities around larger churches in the cities of Oran, Constantine, and Algiers for reasons of safety, abandoning some of the 37 parishes that remained in the country.
The situation deteriorated further when, in April 1996, seven Trappists monks were kidnaped by Algerian Islamic guerillas. Despite pleas by Pope John Paul II for their safe release, on May 21 they were murdered in retaliation for the French government's failure to release a political terrorist. Shortly after reports of their deaths were made, Bp. Pierre Claverie of Oran was killed, along with his driver, in a terrorist bombing. Dozens more priests, monks, and nuns were killed in the violence, according to Amnesty International. In 1997 the pope made a public plea for people to "avoid provocations and attitudes which wound human dignity, and the legitimate rights and aspirations of all people," ending his statement by calling the acts of the terrorists "ferocious barbarity." Amid proposals for international peace talks to resolve the situation in Algeria, in late 1999 the pope met with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to discuss the situation. Fortunately, no more Catholic clergy lost their life through terrorism following Bp. Claverie's murder in 1996.
In January 2000 the FIS's armed contingent disbanded and many surrendered their weapons under an amnesty sponsored by Bouteflika's government. As the Church looked to the new millennium, it saw its membership drastically decreased: more than half the country's 177 nuns had left, while over 40 missionary centers had been abandoned. However, those remaining perceived a new openness to their faith, perhaps in reaction to the violence they had suffered earlier.
Bibliography: a. pons, La Nouvelle Église d'Afrique (Tunis 1930). Annuaire du diocese d'Alger (1930—). l. e. duval, Messages de Paix 1955–1962 (Algiers 1961). e. jarry, Catholicisme 1:317–319; 3:100–102. Bilan du Monde 2:41–49.