The Arab Spring: focus on North African countries
Fr. Christophe Roucou, Director of the French Bishops’ Conference’s national service for Islamic relations, interviewed several bishops living in the North African countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. Their views, in interviews conducted between 21 and 27 March 2011, express their expectations regarding the Churches and the citizens of Europe.
First of all, you can see what all the events happening from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond have in common. On 2 February, the bishops of CERNA (Conference of Bishops of North Africa) in their annual meeting declared “The bishops of CERNA recognise in the events which are currently disrupting Tunisia, Egypt …. a claim for liberty and dignity, particularly on the part of the young generations of the region, which is translated as the desire that all be recognised as citizens, and responsible citizens (…). Liberty of conscience and citizenship will undoubtedly be increasingly at the heart of the dialogue between Muslim and Christian believers who live in the Maghreb.”
Mgr Claude Rault, Bishop of Laghouat-Gardhaïa (Algeria) commented, “First of all, it is the young people who have been at the forefront of this awakening. Their mobilisation has been amazing. As the first victims of a confiscated future, they have discovered how to use modern means of instant communication that cannot be controlled by any single power: Facebook, mobile telephones, the building of a veritable network of solidarity and dialogue. Moreover, and more generally, the information revolution in the Arab world, beginning with the Al-Jazira news channel in the middle of the 1990s, has increased the vulnerability of the official news channels through a proliferation of pluralist and competing Arab television channels.
On another topic, these movements have demonstrated an astonishing maturity. Setting aside the inevitable local flare-ups and the particular case of Libya, there is a kind of collective intelligence, coming down on the side of non-violence, that supports this generalised uprising and calls for profound changes in governance and in social justice.
Finally, even although these rebellions have taken place in Arab countries, religious pressure from Islam is not the root cause of this explosion, which seems rather to have risen up from the deepest depths of human conscience, desperate for dignity, respect, justice and democracy. It is also the result of a kind of collective lucidity which lacks neither intelligence nor wisdom. We have seen, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Muslims and Christians united in the same movement.”
From Tunisia Mgr Maroun Mahham, Archbishop of Tunis, leans in the same direction. “People are talking about the threat of Islam, because from now on everybody is free to speak. Is that threat real? Nobody can guarantee anything, but nothing is ruled out either. The Islamic Party (Ennahda) exists, and now has a secretary. For the time being he speaks in moderate and reassuring tones. It is also true that Tunisia is not Somalia, though it is true that the south and the interior of the country – the famous “regions in the shadows” – are more receptive to the messages of Islam than is the city of Tunis. Let us wait and see. But as far as the life of the Church is concerned, there is no particular problem.
Where does the Church stand on all this? We have all been following the events very closely. We have seen for ourselves incredible scenes of solidarity and sharing. We have played absolutely no role in anything that has happened, but we have kept all these events in our prayers and we have prayed for the victims who fell in the first few days. We realise that the country is heading towards a future that is free, with dignity and democracy. We know that the challenge of democracy is not without hardship. (…) The “Jasmine Revolution” invites us to review certain aspects of the presence of the Church, first of all as the Church and then in the line of service and of bearing witness which is her role. The principle is clear and unchanging. The Church of Vatican II is in the world, for the world and at the service of the world. She is not in parallel with the world, even less is she against the world. That goes for us too. We like this people, we respect their choices and we stand ready to help them. We are certainly living in times of joyous and passionate hope.”
Why is the situation in Algeria different? According to Mgr Rault, “Algeria has already endured these uprisings which led to the horrific ‘Black Decade’. This remains engraved in our minds, and you can understand people are afraid of seeing the violence break out again. The Algerians have suffered too much to want another large-scale insurgency which cost them so dear. They want profound changes too, but without bloody crackdowns. What they are hoping for is that the political and economic institutions, preferably less bureaucratic and entirely free of corruption, should get going to change society towards a kind of democracy that will not necessarily mirror that of France…”
Speaking from Morocco, Mgr Landel (Bishop of Rabat) launched an appeal to Christians in Europe. “The King’s speech of 9 March was entirely unexpected and made a strong impact. But the huge difficulty in all our countries, especially in Morocco, is that there is a risk that people are trying to go too fast. People want political reforms to happen at exactly the same time as social reforms. Let us hope all this haste will not prevent the wheels from turning.
What worries me enormously is the way in which the migrants from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are being treated … When will Europe really provide effective aid to North Africa and to Africa in general? It is this distortion between your lifestyle in Europe and the way people live in Africa that is the root cause of everything that is happening now …. You who know all about freedom, justice and dignity – how are you going to help us to live all that?
We are also aware that we ourselves are a meeting point, if you like, of Christians and Muslims. It is these meetings in real life that lead us towards welcome, esteem and love. I do not know what has to be done, but I am really puzzled when I see how Muslims are feared in the West. How can we transform these mindsets?”
Interviews conducted by Fr. Christophe Roucou
Director of the French Bishops’ Conference’s national service for relations with Islam
Translated from the Original French