Sister Marie Melhem, 81, participated in person at the beatification ceremony of Msgr. Pierre Claverie. The bishop of Oran was a frequent visitor to the Land of the Cedars. The meeting with the religious and the Lebanese model of Islamic-Christian coexistence. The pain for involvement of Christians in the slaughter of Sabra and Chatila.
Beirut (AsiaNews) - Lebanon was part of the beatification mass of the 19 martyrs of Algeria, celebrated last December 8 in Oran (Algeria), above all for the close bonds between the bishop of Oran Pierre Claverie, and the Lebanese congregation of the Sacred Heart, stretching back to the 1990s. The only religious still alive and witness of that era, Sister Marie Melhem - one of the Arab professors in Algiers of the murdered bishop – participated in prayer during the Eucharistic ceremony.
The life of this bishop that Sister Marie Melhem, 81 years old, describes as "a man totally devoted to others, intelligent, with a childlike and humble heart ", should be told above all what brought him to know the Lebanese religious. Born in 1938 in the popular district of Bab-el-Oued in Algiers, Pierre Claverie comes from a family of black feet, as the "French of Algeria" are still called today.
During his studies in France, he discovered that the French presence in Algeria "is not unanimous" and that it has grown in the context of the "colonial bubble" that has enveloped much of his country. In adulthood he chose religious life, and joined the Dominican order. And it is from there that he witnessed the last years of the war of independence of Algeria and decided to return to Algeria in 1967, to be with what he considered - despite everything – the people of his homeland.
He learned Arabic and became an excellent connoisseur of Islam, before being appointed bishop of Oran in 1981. But since 1992, when the civil war broke out in Algeria unleashed by Islamic extremists, in circumstances that would be too long to evoke, the Catholic Church of Algeria, made up largely of aid workers and foreign workers, was under threat.
In Europe, people repeatedly advised him to leave the country. But Pierre Claverie firmly opposed the idea; although he was never able to obtain Algerian citizenship, to all intents and purposes he felt himself a native of the country and refused to abandon a people he was profoundly part of. On May 26, 1996, the assassination of the Tibhirine monks took place.
Pierre Claverie knew he was under threat. On the first of August of 1996 his fears became reality: he was murdered together with his friend and driver Mohamed Bouchikhi: a bomb destroyed the entrance of the bishopric when he was entering, just before midnight.
Religious Arabs and Christians!
On his return to Algeria, he had close ties with Lebanon and with the religious of the Sacred Heart (of Jesus and Mary) under the pretext of learning Arabic. At that time, this congregation founded in Bickfaya (Metn-Lebanon), in the mid-nineteenth by the Jesuits, owned three houses in Algeria: in Algiers, Oran and Constantine. For Pierre Claverie, who was about to enroll in an Arabic language summer internship, it was a sort of love "at first sight", as reported by his biographer Jean Jacques Pérennès.
"They are quite surprising - Pierre Claverie writes in a letter in July 1967 - and unique. I assure you, in civilian clothes and very polite tones! They are animated by an amazing missionary spirit. They are welcomed by the Arabs with an admiration without boundaries; they are welcomed by Arabs, Christians, religious and sit with them ... There is no proselytism in their way of doing, but from a love and a spirit of disinterested service to the people to whom they are sent".
Thanks to these strong bonds with the religious of the Sacred Hearts, Pierre Claverie spent several stays in Lebanon and held spiritual retreats in Bickfaya, Aïnab and the Dominicans of Araya. He learned to love "the faith of the simple" souls who are the wealth and treasure of Lebanon. And he slept several times in Knat (in northern Lebanon), with the family of Sister Marie Melhem, where he was as if "struck by lightning " seeing this model of interreligious relations that he was able to experience in the Land of the Cedars.
Sadly and tragically, while he was in Lebanon in 1982, at the time of the Israeli invasion, he was an indirect and horrified witness to the massacre of Sabra and Chatila (September 1982), and was "disgusted" - Sister Marie Melhem points out - on learning that the Christian militias had also taken part. That was his last stay in Lebanon. She herself and the nuns who knew him shed "all the tears in our body" on hearing of his murder.