Algeria: The Cathedral in the Desert

The Church of Sahara, a small Christian community in the immensity of the Algerian desert, where faith is nourished by simplicity and dialogue with Islam. We spoke with Monsignor Claude Rault, Bishop of Laghouat – Ghardaïa.

He often depicts his small church, located in the immensity of the Sahara desert, as a small caravan. Monsignor Claude Rault is the Bishop of the largest diocese in the world, the Diocese of Laghouat – Ghardaïa in the Sahara desert, which measures about 2 million square kilometres but is also one of the smallest in terms of the number of Catholic faithful – about twelve hundred people.

Bishop Rault said: “Our Apostolate here in the desert can be carried out by referring to the essential elements of our faith, and by being united as one when witnessing to it – even if we are scattered in the most remote corners.

“The desert is a great school of faith to us Christians. It mainly teaches us humility. One feels small in this sea of sand, where one can encounter God.”

The diocese comprises twelve parishes and is served by 12 priests and a dozen religious. Talking about the life of Christians in this immensity of sand with a strong Islamic presence, Monsignor Rault said: “Muslims led us to the sense of transcendence and to God’s greatness. The expression “Allah Akbar” (‘God is the greatest’) is often misused by those who kill in his name, when in reality, they betray him.

“Our Christian life is embedded in the context of a religion of the infinite transcendence of God. Islam’ s basic message can help us find the true greatness of God. We the Christians believe that this ‘Greatness’ is incarnated in human form through Jesus. God shows himself as ‘the Greatest’, by getting close to us; letting us in this way share His Greatness.”

With regard to the plight of migrants, the Bishop said: “It’s a real tragedy. They must be really desperate to decide to make those perilous crossings that too often end up as journeys of death! They die in the desert or in the sea, along with their hopes. Our small Church does not have many resources; but we try to help by focusing on two essential points. Firstly, our celebrations and churches are open to all Christians who want to come and pray. This is the case of Tamanrasset: Christians there can be themselves. They can pray, talk, and dance inside that small parish – all things that they can’t do in their ‘ghettos’. Secondly, we practice the Good Samaritan’s acceptance of the ill, the injured, and the suffering. Unfortunately we can’t do more because of the paucity of our human resources”.

The Bishop also commented on the recent upsurge of conflict in the region of Ghardaïa, among the native peoples, the Mozabite people, and the Arabs. “It is an ancient conflict between two communities that have coexisted for centuries. The reasons for this conflict are several: ethnic (Arab-Berber), economic (nomad-sedentary), religious (Ibadi-Maliki). Our task as Christians is staying close to our friends, whoever they are; sharing the suffering of those who suffer; and operating as artisans of peace. Our community is not involved in these clashes, and it is respected. Although we can seldom express our thoughts and feelings publicly, we can show our solidarity as brothers and sisters because God sees everybody as the same.”

Monsignor Rault insists on the importance of dialogue between Muslims and Christians: “Our small community lives in constant contact with Islam. Beyond our religion, in our humanity, we recognise each other as brothers. To mutually recognise and give each other the right to life in our diversity is great. What is left to us is the duty to witness and to tell the other that he is our brother, and that it is possible to live in brotherhood even if we do not have the same religion”.

But what is the meaning of this small community scattered throughout this vast territory? “I think that the presence of a church, even if consisting of just two or three people, is essential for both Islam and the Catholic Church. Our Christian presence is not primarily intended to grow in number, but to serve the Kingdom of God. We learn, in this Muslim context, to ‘see’ the Kingdom of God present in our hearts, and we are working to make it grow along with all the people of good will, the people of the Beatitudes. We offer what grows in this Kingdom in the Eucharist, bringing it to an eternal dimension. Everything which is lived in love becomes eternal”.

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