Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Bishop Pierre Claverie and the Risks of Religious Reconciliation

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Bishop Pierre Claverie and the Risks of Religious Reconciliation

Article excerpt

Bishop Pierre Claverie's life and death illustrated the challenge posed by interreligious dialogue, especially when pursued in a deteriorating political environment. Furthermore, the bishop embodied the inspiring history of the Church in Algeria, which sought to transform its identity during the trying transition from colonialism to postcolonialism.

Keywords: Armed Islamic Group; Church of Algeria; Claverie, Pierre; Duval, Léon-Etienne; Teissier, Henri

On August 1, 1996, a remote-controlled bomb ripped the episcopal residence of Pierre Claverie, the outspoken bishop of Oran. The explosion killed Claverie and his driver, Mohamed Bouchiki, as they entered the building. Their deaths profoundly affected Algeria, particularly its small Christian community. There was also bereavement on an international scale, given Bishop Claverie's engagement in interreligious dialogue and his condemnation of the violence perpetrated on all sides during Algeria's civil strife or fitna.1

The year of Claverie's assassination was a difficult one for the Catholic Church in Algeria (Church of Algeria). Several months before, the extremist Groupe Islamique Armé (Armed Islamic Group/GIA) reputedly executed seven Trappist monks (Cistercians of the Strict Observance). Retired cardinal Léon-Etienne Duval, who courageously led the Church into the difficult postcolonial period, passed away at the same time. Claverie's assassination marked the climax of violent assaults against Catholics in Algeria. Indeed, his murder remains controversial. Many identify Claverie's death with the question that has tormented Algeria and still remains unresolved regarding its fratricidal violence: qui tue qui (who is killing whom)?

More Muslims than Christians attended Claverie's funeral, attesting to his conciliatory apostolic commitment. Upon Claverie's elevation as bishop in October 1981, he had recognized that all religions had the potential "to become instruments of oppression and alienation." But he professed: "We can fight against these perversions of faith, our own and those of others, by maintaining dialogue __ Dialogue . . . permits the disarming of fanaticism in us and in others. It is for this we are called to express our faith and love of God. . . . Brothers and sisters, this is our mission."2 Claverie devoutly engaged that mission as a person and a prelate during a transformative and tumultuous period.

A Brief History of the Catholic Church in Algeria3

North Africa is unfairly relegated as a tangential rather than a fundamental geographic component of Western Civilization. Indeed, North Africa was Christianized well before Western Europe.4 In what would become modern Algeria, Marcus Minucius Felix (fl. 2nd century AD), a convert from Tébessa, wrote Octav ius, which is considered to be the earliest Christian work written in Latin. Optatus (Optat) from Mila resolutely opposed Donatism, a heresy emerging in North Africa linked to Roman persecution of Christians. (An impressive North African martyrology includes Ss. Perpetua in 203 and Bishop Cyprian in 258.) Augustine (354-430) was born in Souk Ahras and became bishop of Hippo (Bône/Annaba) after a remarkable spiritual quest chronicled in his extraordinary autobiography Confessions. His prolific writings culminated in The City of God, earning him the prestigious title of Church Father and Doctor and sainthood. In addition to Augustine, his mother, Monica (332P-387), and his friend, Alipius (360?-429),were canonized.

In the fifth century, the Vandals' invasion and occupation of principally today's Tunisia and eastern Algeria established Arianism, another heresy5 A century later, the Byzantines overwhelmed the Vandals and restored establishment Christianity. Byzantine rule featured considerable church construction (and fortifications) and ended with the arrival and expansion of the Arabs and Islam during the seventh and eighth centuries.6

Although there was a general conversion to Islam, Christian communities continued, protected as "People of the Book" under Islam. …

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