Christians and Muslims side by side in Algeria
Celebrating 50 years of shared values and relationships through concrete actions for the common good
By Aurora Nicosia
What can Muslims and Christians from Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Greece, Tunisia, France, Italy, Switzerland, Burkina Faso, Canada and Algeria accomplish together? They have carried out a dialogue that has gone on for 50 years, which in a short time has given a real proof of operative sharing.
Recently in Tlemcen, Algeria, an international convention of Muslims of the Focolare Movement was held. More than a convention, it was a vital experience of 50 years since the introduction of Chiara Lubich’s ideal of unity on this large country along the Mediterranean.
To celebrate this anniversary, special invitations were given to those who had lived here in the early years, when everything was just taking shape. Among them was Rosi Bertolassi, originally from Brescia, Italy, who came to offer her witness of the beginning steps.
“I arrived in Algeria on November 1, 1970,” she shared, “and lived here for 13 years until the end of December 1983. In those years the Focolare began to have contacts with people of different religions. One cannot deny the fact that it was not always easy, at times it seemed like a mirage. We were young men and women seeking relationships of friendship, but we met people who expressed disappointment or had preconceptions about the possibility of a real dialogue.”
In the Muslim world of 50 years ago, it was not easy for men and women to integrate. “We were encouraged by our daily experiences,” Bertolassi said. It was enough to think of the first focolarini who arrived in Tlemcen, the western part of Algeria: among them was Ulisse Caglioni who became a priest and died in 2003. We recall all of his hard work and contagious goodness.” The Muslim youth in the neighborhood were immediately attracted by the sincerity of these Christians who had just arrived to live in their midst. Fifty years later, many have become fathers of families and professionals who promote the “ideal of unity” among Christians and Muslims alike.
“In those years, a Lebanese friend who taught Arabic was building relationships with the parents of his pupils. A young French boy, working with people with disabilities, was appreciated for his generosity and enthusiasm. A nurse from Switzerland stimulated the interest of a colleague to leave her country to work in a hospital in Algeria. It might be surprising to see a girl so professionally prepared make this choice, but she understood it was not economic interests that led her to this decision, but an ideal of life,” said Bertolassi.
One day someone told her point-blank: “You must be the true Christians, because you’re happy and you want to do good.” In fact, their relationship was like that of brothers and sisters, peaceful and animated at the same time. “We were convinced that the unity lived among us would have increased the unity in the community around us as well.”
How did they form relationships with the local population? Bertolassi remembered visits with some Algerian families: “The conversations took place over steaming cups of mint tea. An elderly person shared about his pilgrimage to Mecca, and a woman served honey-soaked sweets.
“‘And you?,’ they asked us at times. We knew we were all people who live for God, and because of this, the conversation was profound. We discovered a common religious vision of the world and could share values of peace and fraternity.”
Naturally, they had contact with the Catholic Church in the area: “It was necessary for us to know the country that was hosting us well in order to love it in its efforts at development, its hope and goals,” shared Bertolassi.
This opportunity was offered to them within the context of the Catholic Church present in Algeria through its representatives: Cardinal Leon Etienne Duval, the priests Henry Teissier, Pierre Claverie and Alphonse Georger, who later became a bishop, among other priests and men and women religious who chose to remain in Algeria after its independence.
Thus they began a small Christian community there journeying together with a good number of French, Italians and Spanish, as well as diverse workers from Eastern Europe who came to rebuild the industrial and economic fabric of an independent Algeria.
Bertolassi remembered, “Among the religious men and women who helped us, how could one forget a ‘White Father’ (member of the Missionaries of Africa) who accompanied us to some families in the mountain of Kabilia? His name was Alain Dieulangard, whom they called ‘grandpa,’ from the parish in Tizi Ouzou. He was among the religious who were killed in 1990, assassinated as the monks of Tibhirine (as portrayed in the movie Of Gods and Men). We went to visit him many times, learning about their dialogue, prayers and freely given service.”
In those years this small group, along with some families coming from Europe, built a real community composed in large part by Muslims. Many initiatives and projects that involved a good number of young people were developed. It was a unique experience that many call prophecy in action.
First published in Città Nuova, Italy.