Bishop Pierre Claverie: Obituary

Douglas Johnson
Monday 05 August 1996 00:02

A terrible game is being played in Algeria.

In May seven French Trappist monks were murdered by Islamic extremists. In July the man who had claimed responsibility for these murders, named Zitouni, was himself assassinated by a rival group of terrorists. When it was announced that Herve de Charette, the French foreign minister, was going to make an official visit to Algiers, the first by any French minister for some three years, it was obvious that this would be a moment for an Islamic demonstration which would avenge the death of Zitouni. This took place when a bomb was placed in the car of the Bishop of Oran, Monsignor Claverie. The game continued when, after the Bishop's death, the French and Algerian governments announced the concrete results of their meetings, which included expenditure by the French goverment on economic and cultural matters.

It was sadly ironic that one of those who had foreseen that violence would attend the diplomatic visit was the Bishop of Oran himself. He knew the dangers that always accompanied someone who was a spokesman for Christianity. The French government has repeatedly called on French nationals to leave Algeria, and some 160 priests and nuns have left in the last year. About 200 remain, although their Christian communities have shrunk to some 20,000 (the number used to be double that in 1980). And, most striking of all, it appears that young priests and sisters who have just been ordained are ready to volunteer to go and work in Algeria.

The role of the Church in these territories is perhaps the finest that Christians can have. There is no attempt to convert; although there is a great deal of social work and this occupies much of their time, this is not the main responsibility of the Christian Church in Muslim Algeria. The main responsibility is discussion. The two religions are linked together in particular problems and uncertainty. By discussion they both can become richer. Pierre Claverie said that the key word in his religion was "dialogue".

Claverie was born in Bab el Oued, the district in Algiers which was populated by many French people of modest means. He was the fourth generation of French settlers, and he therefore saw Algeria very much as his home. He went to France for his education, and also to Egypt. There he learnt Arabic. In 1965 he was admitted into the Dominican order and returned to Algiers to teach the language. He taught classical Arabic and he had many Arabs amongst his audiences, who knew only popular Arabic.

This was at a time when the future of Algeria was being settled, and Claverie took the side of those who wanted independence. His vision was of a united liberal Algeria, where French and Algerians would live together harmoniously and where the religions would exist side by side, with mutual understanding. This is precisely the solution that the Islamic fundamentalists do not accept.

The news of Claverie's assassination was a great shock to French people. That religious differences can be important is inevitable. But that such differences lead to the assassination of a good man, like the Bishop, is unacceptable. The Communist newspaper in Paris, not normally attached to bishops, gave an interpretation of the news that struck everyone. A drawing shows a bearded Muslim pulling a trigger, and saying, "He was always talking of peace and fraternity. Now he won't get in our way any more."

Henri (Pierre) Claverie, priest: born Algiers 8 May 1938; ordained 1965; Bishop of Oran 1981-96; died Oran, Algeria 1 August 1996.

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