Roman Catholic church beatifies martyrs in Algeria in historic first

Algeria is working on a law to allow freedoms to Christian associations as a gesture of good faith and tolerance.
Sunday 16/12/2018
Honouring victims. Mohammed Isa (C-L), Algerian Minister of Religious Affairs and Endowments, welcomes Papal Envoy Cardinal Angelo Becciu (C-R) at the Chapel of Our Lady of Santa Cruz in Algeria’s northern city of Oran, December 8. (AFP)
Honouring victims. Mohammed Isa (C-L), Algerian Minister of Religious Affairs and Endowments, welcomes Papal Envoy Cardinal Angelo Becciu (C-R) at the Chapel of Our Lady of Santa Cruz in Algeria’s northern city of Oran, December 8. (AFP)

TUNIS - A total of 19 clergymen and women were honoured at Roman Catholic beatification ceremonies that paid tribute to martyrs killed during the Algerian civil war.

More than 1,300 people, including ambassadors from several countries and various religious dignitaries, attended events December 8 in Oran, which made Algeria the first Muslim country to host a Roman Catholic beatification ceremony.

Beatification, different from sainthood, is the Catholic Church’s recognition of a person’s entrance into Heaven and capacity to intercede for people who pray in the person’s name.

“It is a sign of fraternity from Algeria to the world,” Roman Catholic Pope Francis said in a message read by Cardinal Angelo Becciu, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. “We believe that this event, which is unprecedented in your country, will draw a great sign of brotherhood in the Algerian sky for the whole world.”

The beatified Catholics included seven French Trappist monks who were abducted from the monastery at Tibhirine, south of Algiers, in 1996. Their skulls were discovered buried nearby but their bodies were never found. The events were depicted in the 2010 film “Of Gods and Men.”

The radical Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, known by its French initials GIA, claimed responsibility for the beheadings but guilt was never substantiated.

Pope Francis, on the same day as the ceremonies in Algeria, told a crowd of about 30,000 in Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican: “These martyrs of our times were faithful announcers of the Gospel, humble builders of peace and heroic witnesses to Christian charity.”

“Their courageous witness is a source of hope for the Algerian Catholic community and a seed of dialogue for the entire society,” he added, saying he hoped the beatifications would be “a stimulus to build together a world of brotherhood and solidarity.”

Catholics, including Becciu, joined Muslims at Oran’s Ibn Badis mosque to pray for the memory of 400 Algerian imams killed by radical Islamists during what Algerians call the “black decade,” a civil war that pitted the Algerian military against Islamist jihadists.

The civil strife died down in the early 2000s after almost 250,000 people had lost their lives.

Algerian Religious Affairs Minister Mohamed Aissa hailed the ceremonies that brought together Muslims and Christians as “a universal message for peace and a confirmation that living together in harmony in Algeria is possible.”

“Algeria and the Catholic church (received) great lessons from this experience to continue their dialogue to further strengthen the cooperation between the two sides,” Aissa said.

Algeria and the Catholic Church have exhibited close ties in the past. The church supported Algeria’s push for independence from 1954-62, prompting Algerian independence fighters to recognise the church’s top official at the time, Cardinal Leo Etienne Duval, for his support to their cause, dubbing him Mohamed Duval.

Relations soured in the 1990s with the resurgence of political Islamists and jihadists, who were blamed for the killing of dozens of Algerian Christians. Most Christians then left the country.

Algeria is working on a law to allow freedoms to Christian associations as a gesture of good faith and tolerance.

“During my stay and meeting with the Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, I saw the readiness of the Algerian government to cooperate with the Holy See and the Church here in Algeria to expand cooperation within the framework of living together in peace and fraternity,” said Becciu.

Reaching out to Muslim faithful and their leaders in Islamic states is a mark of Francis’s tenure, a contrast to previous popes who engaged with Islam mostly on the theological level.

While many hailed the pope for building bridges and interacting directly with Islamic leaders, some right-wing conservatives in the church, as well as Muslim converts to Catholicism, questioned the approach.

As part of his drive to build bridges with Islam, Francis refused a bulletproof car and conducted an open-air mass from a topless golf buggy in Cairo in 2017. He plans to visit the United Arab Emirates in February and Morocco in March.

“We welcome the news of Pope Francis’s visit to the United Arab Emirates next February — a visit that will strengthen our ties and understanding of each other, enhance interfaith dialogue and help us to work together to maintain and build peace among the nations of the world,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, deputy president and Dubai ruler.

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