Slain bishop committed to building bridges in Algeria

  • October 19, 2007
{mosimage}TORONTO - Some of the most horrific violence of our time happened in Algeria in the 1990s, and it only tangentially involved Catholics. But that tangent is full of dangers, doubts and fear.

More than 100,000 Algerians were hacked to death, shot or blown up in a desperate, insane civil war between Islamists and a military government in Algeria, but the most famous victims were seven Trappist monks of Tibérine and the Roman Catholic bishop of Oran, Pierre Claverie.

Claverie’s biographer, Dominican Father Jean-Jacques Pérennés, came to Toronto Oct. 11 to explain Claverie’s vision and commitment to life with the people of Algeria. Claverie would let neither fear nor revenge govern how Christians respond to his 1996 assassination, said Pérennés.

As a boy who grew up among the French colonial community in Algeria and saw the 1962 war of independence from a distance while studying in France, Claverie had an instinct about how to end violence. That instinct surfaced in Claverie’s vocation to the Dominican order, said Pérennés. As a young man, Claverie said he wanted to give himself completely to God.

“The only thing that can break this cycle of violence is to give your life in total  generosity,” said Pérennés.

When Claverie returned to Algeria from France following the war of independence, he did all of the things colonial French settlers never did — learned Arabic, cultivated Muslim Algerian friends and studied the Koran. He came to see that in his former life as a pied noir settler he had not been racist, only indifferent to the people around him — treating them as a backdrop to his life.

Claverie was always cautious about inter-religious dialogue, fearful it would be an empty or academic exercise.

“We don’t yet have the words for dialogue. Let us first live together,” said Claverie.

Claverie taught the importance of real commitment, not just to dialogue but to the other people in the dialogue, said Pérennés.

“You cannot build bridges without commitment,” he said.

The idea of commitment before dialogue is a crucial message, said Tom Sagar, a regional director of KAIROS who was in the audience.

“It’s so important to be present to one another,” Sagar said.

Claverie’s doctrine of commitment and living together doesn’t just apply to Algeria or the volatile Middle East, said Francisco Vidal. It applies also in Canada, where immigrants often find themselves living completely separate lives from the society they’ve come to join, said the immigrant from El Salvador.

“There’s not a sense of community for people who come into these egocentric societies in the North,” Vidal said.

Pérennés lecture on Claverie kicked off the seventh annual Dominican justice seminar at the University of St. Michael’s College. Pérennés biography of Claverie, A Life Poured Out: Pierre Claverie of Algeria is available from Orbis Books this month.

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