11/14/2005, 00.00
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Bishop of Laghouat: on mission in the footsteps of Charles de Foucauld

by Bernardo Cervellera

Bishop Rault, who asked PIME for a mission in Algeria, speaks on dialogue made of "proximity" to people and to a society in which the refusal of violent choices needs to be reinforced.

Roma (AsiaNews) - For Monsignor Claude Rault, a Frenchman named Bishop of Lahgouat just months ago, mission in an Islamic country is "witnessing and telling the other that he is my brother and that it is possible to life in brotherhood even if we do not have the same religion."  Bishop Rault has asked the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (P.I.ME. according to its Italian acronym) to start a mission in Algeria too.

In an interview with AsiaNews during his stay in Rome for the beatification of Charles de Foucauld, whose remains are buried in his diocese, Bishop Rault tells of a presence that consists not so much of theological dialogue, as of "fraternal" proximity in daily life, right in the footsteps of the new Blessed, and of a country, Algeria, that had been dragged into violence for reasons that were more economic than religious, and of an Islam which is not as "compact" as it appears in the West.

"I am a White Father and arrived in Algeria in 1970," says the current Bishop of Laghouat, beginning his story of 35 years of experience, which includes past work as a teacher and a tradesman.  For some time, he says, "I found no other work so I set to work as a metal worker: I used to make plates of embossed copper.  This was my job for 4 or 5 years, together with 4 or 5 workers who were happy to teach me their trade.  This experience was profoundly useful to me, as it allowed me to be even closer to the Algerian population and to understand more from within what the people of Algerian society live and suffer."

The Laghouat Diocese is among the largest in the world, almost 2 million km2 in the Sahara desert, but also one of the smallest in terms of the number of faithful…What are the Church and mission like?

There are 3.5 million Muslims in my diocese.  There are about one hundred Christians.  Counting also the seventy or so nuns and monks we have, ours is truly an atypical diocese!

We can only speak in terms of our personal relationships.  We aren't a Church with a lot of infrastructure, a Church that is self-sufficient in organizing its existence: our activity, our apostolate is addressed to the other, to the quality of the relationship with the other, for the purpose of expressing a more brotherly humanity.

Take for example the nuns who are geared to social work, in favour of women and the handicapped and are highly requested by the local population.  We monks instead work in libraries, in cultural centres, together with students, as teachers, also of languages, in support of school studies… Our services are often requested by other centres of this kind.  Our contribution is much cared for and appreciated.

Our dialogue with Islam is a dialogue of life, in daily life, side by side with families in tragic moments, as well as festive one, like Christmas, Easter or Ramadan.

Charles de Foucauld's tomb at El-Golea is in your diocese.  What is his legacy?

The Beatification met with some controversy in the Algerian press, due to de Foucauld's "colonial" past.  But there are 3 things that are still striking to the spirit of Algerians: that Charles de Foucauld's conversion happened while he was in contact with this observant Muslim population.  In his travels in Morocco and Algeria, when he was a soldier, he met these observant people and this encouraged him to rethink his own faith.  This was his first step, later confirmed by his encounter with the Church in France.

Another factor is that Charles de Foucauld with a man of prayer.  And he did not separate Jesus' presence in the Eucharist from His presence in the poor.  He went into the desert to meet God, but also to meet those who are farthest away.

He did not go into the Hoggar to teach to the French and the Tuareg.  He went there to give and to receive, he blended in with this population, studied the ethnology and the language with works that are still very useful.  He translated over 600 Tuareg poems and songs, and also translated the Bible into the Berber language.  He also had many ties with the Tuareg elite of the time and at the same time was the chaplain of the French army, acting as a bridge between both sides.

For us, the beatification is a seal on our presence in Algeria, among the Muslims.  His experience is tied to ours and is being presented to the Universal Church so that it can be shared and supported.  At times, we are criticized by members of the Church because "we do little", and "we're not converting…"  But conversion is God's work: what is left to us is the duty to witness and to tell the other that he is our brother, and that it is possible to live in brotherhood even if we do not have the same religion."

What brought you to invite the P.I.M.E. to Algeria and to Laghouat?

First of all, the Fathers know as "Missionaries of Africa" do not have a monopoly on mission in that continent.  Then, until now, mission in the Sahara had been carried out by the Little Brothers of Jesus, the White Fathers, in a sort of conviviality and brotherhood.  To have a new missionary family in our diocese is an opportunity for us, an opening.  And since P.I.M.E. has missions everywhere, in Asia and in America, it serves to open our horizons across the universal mission.

It is also a present to P.I.M.E.'s mission…

Well, it a reciprocal present.

What do you receive from and what do you give to the people of Algeria?

It's hard to take stock.  What I give is also what I receive: the feeling of a universal brotherhood that goes beyond religious adherence.  God is not imprisoned in our respective religions and the best that we can share is our being children of God together.  I'm often surprised when an Algerian presents me to a friend saying: "Here, this is our bishop!" The word "our" strikes me because, even if I'm foreign, he welcomes me into his life.  Beyond our religion, in our humanity, we recognize each other as brothers.  To mutually recognize and give each other the right to life in our diversity is great.  This rests on two pillars: our shared humanity and our shared God.

Is there religious dialogue with Muslim intellectuals?

Dialogue exists mainly in the big cities of the north, Algiers, Oran… In the south, it is mainly a dialogue of daily proximity, made of companionship and friendship with families, society.   There's no dialogue on the principles of theology, but on the meaning of things that happen.  To give an example: the death of John Paul II.  I was truly surprised to see the number of messages that arrived from Muslims that wrote to me, visited, expressed their condolences saying: you're not the only ones mourning – we are also.  John Paul II was a universal man, he opened doors, he valued Muslims, he spoke against the war.  When there is violence in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Palestine we are not immediately identified with the West.  They know that the Church's positions do not coincide with those of Bush or Chirac.  We are not at the West's service.  Our Muslim friends also know how to distance themselves from fundamentalist violence.  For us and for them, violence never pays.  Besides, the first victims of fundamentalism are Muslims themselves.

Algeria is famous for an attempt to modernize Islam.  At the same time it is sadly famous because, in the recent past, Islamic violence struck even against the people of Algeria.  What are the prospects and risks for the Christian presence?

The malaise which had been provoked in the country did not have, I think, so much a religious matrix, as an economic one.  Algeria ,which had known a period of prosperity, with Socialist leadership, little by little slipped into an economic crisis.  When the country became independent, a barrel of oil cost 30 dollars.  When Algeria began to pay off its debts, the barrel went down to 16 dollars.  By that point, 70% of food stocks were being imported.  With a looming crisis, Algeria had to reduce its imports, with serious fallout for the population.  By the 1980s, this crisis became increasingly serious, affecting even political structures.  Revolts and protests rocked the entire social system and political power.  The only alternative was that of the Islamic Salvation Front.  Violence grew more and more, even when elections were withheld.  Some Islamics became rebels and the sadly famous violence that you read about in the papers grew.  All this had been generated by economic destabilization, which produced internal uneasiness and there was also the action of a party with religious claims, but that was above all violent, leaving more than 150,000 victims.  But violence never pays.  Little by little people opened up to political alternation which is pushing the more fanatical and extremist violence to the margins.  During this predicament, even the Church paid its tribute of blood with more than 19 religious killed.

The fact that the Church chose to stay in this situation has anchored it even more soundly to the population.

Perhaps prior to this period, Islam was seen as a monolith.  Now Algerians are realizing that there are different ways in which Islam is lived.  Even if the fundamentalist and violent current remains, people understand that there are other ways of expressing Islam, both the more liberal and the stricter kinds.

Now that the price of oil is high, is the Algerian economy going well?

The country is faced with the problem of transforming oil revenues into jobs for the young.  Algeria will earn something like 50 million dollars in 2005.  All this will be used to improve streets, homes, etc, but does not produce jobs.  Perhaps the Algerian government is not yet able to attract foreign investment and to improve job skills of its young people, so as to stimulate greater employment.

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