Obituary : Cardinal Leon- Etienne Duval

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The coincidence was tragic. On the same day that the bodies of the seven French Trappist monks who had been murdered by Islamic terrorists were discovered in the Atlas Mountains, Monsignor Duval, former Archbishop and Cardinal of Algiers, died in that city at the age of 92.

Such is the atmosphere amongst Christians and their sympathisers in Algiers, a pitifully small group, that the rumour grew that the Cardinal had been assassinated. But he died a natural death, his last days saddened by the kidnapping and the killing of the monks. A Mass was said for all of them in Algiers on Sunday.

But there is an important difference. The Algerian government was slow to send condolences about the seven monks, who were kidnapped on 27 March. But as soon as he heard of the death of Cardinal Duval, the President of Algeria, President Zeroval, hastened to his house near Notre Dame d'Afrique to pay homage. He also issued a statement, praising a man who everybody knew to be pious and just.

It was natural that the President should behave differently towards the Cardinal. He had known him for many years and respected him. But there is also a political reason. The monks at Tibehirine spent their lives in prayer, carrying out ordinary tasks, and helping the population that surrounded them, especially the sick. They made no attempts at conversion and played no role in the present conflicts. But for Duval it was different. He was in the tradition of the Christian church in Algeria. They assisted in the process of colonisation, often attacked by the anti-clerical officials of the Third Republic. They played their role in two world wars, assisting French armies. And then it was the war of independence, and Duval came to Algeria, as Bishop of Constantine, in 1947, just two years after the first explosion of revolt had taken place at Setif, some 60 kilometres west of Constantine. He became Bishop of Algiers in 1954, as the real war of independence began.

From the beginning of his mission in Algeria, Duval became one of the leaders of those who believed that it was possible for an agreement to be made between the French and the nationalists. In Algiers, this group was varied, including French and Algerian liberals, university and school teachers, certain trade-unionists and members of the Algerian communist party. Duval was particularly influential with Catholic students who had a strong base in their Centre Catholique Universitaire, which attracted many visitors.

Duval was also in touch with like-minded people in France, in particular with the writer, Albert Camus. Duval supported him rather than Jean-Paul Sartre, who was calling for independence to be given immediately to Algeria. Camus was rather calling for a truce and for the possibility of Arabs and French living together.

Perhaps the bitterest controversy surrounding Cardinal Duval was his attitude towards torture. During the winter of 1956-57 it became clear that the police could no longer deal with the nationalist network that had come to dominate Algiers. Their powers were transferred to the 10th Parachute Division under General Massu. The battle of Algiers, as it was called, involved the interrogation of those who might provide information. This could involve torture. In the campaign that followed, Cardinal Duval was prominent in denouncing the French army's behaviour. There was a bitter quarrel, which has not yet ceased.

As independence grew near, the settlers became violent in their threats against Mohammed Ben Duval as they called him. He did not mind. He replied "Mohammed Duval in" and he survived. From 1965 he took dual Algerian and French nationality. The Pope, who greatly respected him, encouraged him to remain as Cardinal of Algiers until 1988.

He played an important role in Vatican II. He visited the American hostages in Lebanon. This son of a poor peasant family in Haute-Savoie, who was ordained priest in 1926 and who played a part in the Resistance during the German occupation of France, was always conscious of the presence of the poor, and his last messages to the French government were pleas for increased financial aid.

But there were some who will never forgive him for having handed the cathedral of Algiers to the Islamic faith. He left behind the coffins of the first bishop and the first archbishop of Algiers. When the existence of these remains was remembered men took them away in the night like body snatchers.

Leon-Etienne Duval, priest: born Chenex, Haute-Savoie 9 November 1903; ordained priest 1926; consecrated Bishop of Constantine and Hippo 1946; Archbishop of Algiers 1954-88; created Cardinal 1965; died Algiers 30 May 1996.