09/17/2018, 17.21
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The beatification of martyrs in Algeria, a seed of hope for the country

by Marco Pagani*

The death of the 19 Catholics during the civil war of 1990s is a great testimony of faith and truth. The fidelity of the martyrs and the Lord, who never abandoned them, stands out.

Algiers (AsiaNews) - The Algerian government has invited Pope Francis to the beatification ceremony of the 19 Christian martyrs killed in Algeria during the civil war of the 1990s, Algerian Minister of Religious Affairs and Waqf Mohamed Aïssa announced. The Algerian government has in fact sent an official invitation to the Holy Father to visit the country noting that the upcoming beatifications in the city of Oran may be "an opportunity" for such an event. What follows is a piece sent to AsiaNews by a PIME missionary who lives and works in the North African country looking at the importance of such a ceremony.

On the feast day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (14 September) came the news of the upcoming beatification of the 19 Christian martyrs killed in Algeria during the civil war that devastated the country from 1991 to 2002. The ceremony itself is scheduled for 8 December.

Although no accurate data exist, it is estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 Algerian Muslims died during the civil war, including more than 100 imams who refused to bow to the will and power of the Islamists. The carnage is still shrouded in many unanswered questions as to who was behind so many killings.

Almost as soon as the violence broke out, Islamists targeted foreigners, telling them to leave the country by the end of November 1993 or be killed. Algerian government and military officials also came into their crosshairs.

When the threat became apparent, discussions began among the country’s male and female religious communities, whose members were largely foreign, as to how to respond to the threat. Some communities decided to leave, others to stay. Every choice was painful and can never be judged from hindsight. The fact remains that those who stayed came to share the fear of many Algerians, a daily fear, living with death that could come at any time, on any street, in any market, on any vehicle, at the entrance of any school or home. . .

It is against this background that we must place the killing of 19 men and women religious, including the bishop of Oran (killed with his Muslim driver), which ended the cycle of murders against members of the Catholic Church.

The victims were Mgr Pierre Claverie, Brother Henri Vergès, Sister Paul-Hélène Saint-Raymond, Sister Esther Paniagua Alonso, Sister Caridad Álvarez Martín, Father Jean Chevillard, Father Alain Dieulangard, Father Charles Deckers, Father Christian Chessel, Sister Angèle-Marie Littlejohn, Sister Bibiane Leclercq, Sister Odette Prévost, Brother Luc Dochier, Brother Christian de Cherge, Brother Christophe Lebreton, Brother Michel Fleury, Brother Bruno Lemarchand, Brother Célestin Ringeard and Brother Paul Favre-Miville.

The list includes the Cistercian monks of Thibirine, whose case has, thanks to a box office hit, taken centre stage in media coverage. But why are they martyrs, if their death was not strictly speaking the result of persecution directed against the Catholic Church, but the result of direct actions against foreigners?

The word martyrdom means testimony. And the conscious choice to remain in Algeria for the love of Christ and the Algerian people and the desire to share their destiny to the end underscore this martyrdom well. That is also the case of all the others, who were not asked to give their blood (listening to the stories one understands how this could have been the case for many others but for the most trivial circumstances was not ... if one can talk about something trivial rather than the Lord’s mysterious design. . .).

Fidelity is a word comes forcefully out of this event. Such a word may not be highly appreciated nowadays in a world where everything can be changed if it is convenient, but this was not so for them and for all those who still live in Algeria. Fidelity also on the part of God who never abandoned his own, not even in the moment of trial.

One thing that struck me a lot, listening to the stories of those who knew the 19 who were killed, is that some of them died going or coming from the Eucharistic celebration. This is Christ’s gift par excellence to his own people. A gift that continues today for this country still looking for true reconciliation among its children, to heal a wound that still bleeds.

For the Church in Algeria today, the word fidelity illuminates daily life, a fidelity to the gift we received in baptism, and which makes us recognise our brother, our sister, in others, without naively forgetting or underestimating our differences. But with the desire that the face of the only Father of whom we are all children may be revealed in all.

* PIME missionary in Algeria

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