Christian Shepherd Shines His Light in Islamic Pasture

Algiers, Algeria - HENRI TESSIER is a quiet man, a serious man, a man who exudes a certain air of disappointment at the end of a long career. He is two years past retirement, waiting patiently for Rome to name his replacement as the archbishop of Algeria where he has been witness to what he says is the slow “death of a church.”

In the archdiocese’s offices off a narrow street here — a few doors down from the old St. Charles Church, which is now St. Charles Mosque — Archbishop Tessier, 77, reflected on the ebbing of Christianity from North Africa’s shores as Islam spreads across Europe.

Algeria, Roman Catholics here are quick to point out, is where St. Augustine was born and died. (A bone from his right forearm is displayed at a basilica in the northeastern town of Annaba.) By the fifth century, 700 bishops were scattered across North Africa.

But the church withered 300 years later as Islam swept west across the continent and leapt the Mediterranean to Spain. It did not return with any force until the colonial conquests of the 19th century.

Archbishop Tessier’s family has deep roots in colonial Algeria, where they once owned a shipping company and a bank. He was born in Lyon, France, in 1929 and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and theology at the Catholic Institute of Paris. His father served as an officer in the French Army and later worked in the Algerian oil industry here.

When he began his work as a parish priest in 1958, there were more than 700 churches in the country. But even then Christianity was only an implant.

Within months of Algeria’s independence from France in 1962, 900,000 Christians had fled to Europe’s shores. Most of those who remained left after the government nationalized land and businesses in 1964, and all but a few thousand of the rest were forced out when Islamic radicals started killing foreigners in the 1990’s. Nineteen Catholic clergy members were killed, including seven Trappist monks. Only their heads have been found.

There are only about 20 churches left in Algeria, and they are mostly empty. The rest have been converted into mosques or cultural centers or have been abandoned. All of the church’s schools and hospitals were nationalized in the 1970’s. Recently, the church’s activities have been further circumscribed by a new law against proselytizing that leaves many of the church’s charitable activities vulnerable to politically motivated interpretation.

BUT the archbishop is not a man to show despair. He maintains that the Roman Catholic clergy has a role to play in Algeria and elsewhere in the Muslim world even if there is no indigenous church left to maintain. Most of the Catholics in the country today are temporary residents from sub-Saharan Africa.

“Our job isn’t to be a church that takes care of the church, but a church that works for the country,” said Archbishop Tessier, sitting among the books and photographs that line his office walls. As on most days, he was wearing slacks and a short-sleeved shirt.

Every morning he celebrates a Mass for 15 or 20 people at the chapel of the diocesan house where he lives and then goes by car to his office. There he receives visitors and addresses the problems of his small flock.

On one recent day, he was listening to a group of African students who had been expelled from their university for organizing a Catholic association on campus. He helped get them reinstated.

After independence, some of the country’s Muslims were glad the church was there, he said, because they wanted to show to the world that Algeria was open and tolerant. But there were others who saw the church as a threat and wanted it to leave.

Like many observers of the Muslim world, Archbishop Tessier, who is fluent in Arabic, blames the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for fueling anti-Western sentiment and propelling the rise of a radical, political Islam.

He said he believed that the Iraq war had only accelerated that trend. He also said conservative Islam’s anti-Western shift was linked to the failure of Arab governments to properly develop their economies.

“If the Arabs had known the same rhythm of development as the Asian dragons, we wouldn’t have this extremism,” he said.

In Algeria, he said, the trend was exacerbated by the failure of socialist policies, which were followed at the encouragement of the cold-war patrons who had backed Algeria during its war of independence.

“The people were disappointed by the West during the war and then they were disappointed by the East during the socialist period, so they turned toward the Islam,” he said.

Since then, he said, Algerian society has shifted from the French language and European culture toward Arabic and the culture of the Middle East. “There’s been a progressive loss of contact with the West,” he said.

When satellite dishes first appeared, he said, for example, they were predominantly positioned to receive French broadcasts. Now, he said, the majority are pointed toward the Persian Gulf.

“If you watch Western television, you live in one universe, and if you watch Middle Eastern television, you live in another altogether,” he said, adding that he thought Middle Eastern broadcasts tended to denigrate the West.

He said another big influence in Algeria came from audiocassettes made by fundamentalist imams in Egypt and the Persian Gulf. “People see the West through the tension of the Middle East,” he said.

But the central tension in Algeria is not between Muslims and Christians, he noted, but between Muslims and other Muslims, as competing currents within Arab society struggle for domination.

The archbishop travels outside Algiers, the capital, to offer Masses for small groups of Catholics in smaller towns, and he is a frequent guest of the Algiers diplomatic corps as well as various Algerian groups. It is not a solitary life, but his circle has narrowed over time. His sister and her family, the last of his family to remain in Algeria, left the country in 1972. His closest friends are now fellow priests committed to the country.

DESPITE a decade of bloody violence, the conservative Islamist trend has continued to grow. Earlier this year, Algerian television began interrupting programming five times a day for the call to prayer. “Numerically, they are winning,” he said.

He said the Roman Catholic Church would like to help stem that tide.

The continued presence of the church, he contends, is not to convert Muslims to Christianity or to minister to a dwindling Christian flock or even to engage in a doctrinal dialogue with Muslims, which he said he believed lead to confrontation. The importance of the church in a Muslim land, he said, is to act as a kind of living exhibition of Western values for Muslims who are otherwise cut off from the Western world.

It is not easy. While the church has good relations with what he calls “humanist Muslims,” it has little contact with fundamentalists.

“The fundamentalist Muslims who want a return to the Islamic law of the Middle Ages are not interested in meeting us,” he said.

Still, he said, he believed the church had won a measure of respect from Algerians for refusing to abandon the country. “With all of these problems, the church is a sign and an instrument,” he said.