The Word Among Us

Easter 2019 Issue

Forging Peace through Fellowship

Blessed Pierre Claverie’s path of respect amidst violence.

By: Kathryn Elliott

Forging Peace through Fellowship: Blessed Pierre Claverie’s path of respect amidst violence. by Kathryn Elliott

“There is an increasingly deep divide among people just an hour away from us by plane. It is at a fever pitch now; it is terrifying. . . . And this is the Church’s rightful place because it is Jesus’ place. The cross is the rack of the one who does not choose one side or another, because by joining humanity one does not reject part of humanity. . . . The mission at hand is that of holding both sides together.” —Bishop Claverie

Pierre Claverie was born in 1938 to a French family residing in Algeria, an Arab nation conquered by France a hundred years earlier. For the first twenty years of his life, Pierre lived in an apartment complex with his parents and his sister, Anne-Marie. Family life was tight-knit and joyful, with regular opportunities to share Mediterranean food and tell stories.

This was Pierre’s foundation, a school of love. But it was also a “bubble” that shielded him from hardworking Muslim neighbors who lived all around—and who suffered under French colonial power. Arab Muslims constituted 90 percent of French Algeria’s population, but they were invisible to most European Algerians. “We were not racists, only indifferent,” Pierre later said regretfully.

At eighteen, Pierre surprised his parents by announcing that he wanted to be a Dominican priest. He left two years later to become a novice in Grenoble, France. The Dominicans there supported Algerian independence, and Pierre honed his political awareness while studying to be a priest. He also learned to find his joy in the rhythm of daily prayer. “Even if I remain dry as a stick of wood for half an hour, I leave [prayer] ‘restored,’” he wrote his parents.

At Grenoble, Pierre began to feel keenly the “abyss” of separation that stood between Christians and Muslims in Algeria. He wanted to return to Algeria having studied Arabic so that he could rediscover his homeland from the perspective of the people who had lived there first. But by the time he returned for good in 1967 as a professed Dominican and ordained priest, Pierre was himself a foreigner in his own country.

A Changed Land. The Algeria to which Claverie returned was starkly different. In 1962, Algerian independence had become official. Nearly a million Europeans, including a majority of Algeria’s Christians, had left for France. Churches were empty. French influence had disappeared from the streets. But Pierre’s zeal to understand the Algerian people without prejudice surpassed any discomfort he felt.

Several nights a week, he practiced Arabic conversation. Mastery of the language was freeing; it allowed him to invite Algerians to tea, to a weekend outing, or to an evening barbecue. In place of “Arabs” or “foreigners,” as he had previously thought of Muslims, “I discovered . . . human beings,” he later wrote. Claverie even enjoyed lively discussions with his dentist. “We talk about the Bible and Qur’an, messiah and prophecy, the Holy Spirit and spirit of Muhammed,” he told his parents. As he liked to say, relationships, always, everywhere, with everyone, became his mode of life.

These were years of growing responsibility for Claverie. He was asked to direct a center for language studies and frequently gave retreats and talks to the small but active Catholic religious communities in Algiers. He had adopted the Second Vatican Council’s approach to dialogue with non-Christians and found it a helpful pastoral approach in Algeria. “We do not own the truth,” he repeated. “It is the truth that takes hold of us and leads us to discover itself ever more deeply.”

In 1981, with popular support, Claverie was ordained Bishop of Oran, the diocese covering the northwest quadrant of Algeria. From the beginning of his ministry, he maintained his close friendships with Muslim imams and working-class Algerians. He joined them at birthdays and funerals, in good and bad times, and in pleasant casual conversations on street corners. In an interview given years later, Claverie said simply, “Are we evangelizing? Yes, in the sense that we propose the revelation that God is love.”

The Nation Crumbles. Yet Bishop Claverie was aware of the vastly different worldviews held by Islam and Christianity. His approach to interreligious dialogue was not to minimize theological differences but to learn about them with openness. He did not want to be accused of a “new crusade” against Islam, nor could the church in Algeria afford to try to impose itself.

Religious intolerance was on the rise. As bishop of Oran, Claverie continuously emphasized the shared challenges that Catholics and Muslims faced as citizens of one nation. One obvious challenge was felt by everyone: Algeria was sinking into economic ruin.

Sixty percent of the population was under age twenty, and many young people had moved to cities where infrastructure was poor and unemployment high. Discontented with Algeria’s government, some of them turned to an Islamic extremist political party that had arisen in the eighties. Then in 1991, the extremist Algerians promoting a new “Islamic State” entered into a civil war with their government.

Thousands of moderate Muslims were killed as victims of terrorist attacks. As one journalist put it, “The 8:00 p.m. television newscast has turned into an obituary.” The environment in cities was perilous for Christians as well, and Bishop Claverie sent some of his flock out of the country for safety.

Living A Eucharistic Life. The next two years marked a deepening of Claverie’s sense of mission and his closeness to God. As Lent of 1993 approached, he wrote a blunt editorial directed at the priests, religious, and laypeople who remained at their posts in Algerian schools, hospitals, and villages. He told them,

This Lent should be a time for all of us to look death in the face. What place does it have in our lives? Why are we so afraid of it? We are walking with Jesus down the road to Easter . . . , the giving of our lives.

Bishop Claverie wanted his people to see the symbolism of Easter as they were living it out. By remaining in Algeria, they were giving witness to a love that was “stronger than death.” It was a worthy mission, he felt: a covenant of faithfulness that witnessed to Christ’s identity better than any sermon.

The first Catholic religious were killed by terrorists in 1994. It was a tragedy for the Church, but an equal sorrow for local Algerians—Muslims who knew and trusted the priests who served their community. Claverie considered this shared sorrow a bittersweet victory won by the priests’ generous love. The following summer, he exhorted a community of religious sisters to keep serving the Algerians as “white martyrs”:

White martyrdom is what one strives to live each day, the giving of one’s life drop by drop—in a look, in being present, in a smile, a gesture of concern, a service, in all of those things that make one’s life a life that is shared, given, bestowed upon others.

This was a “eucharistic” life, he told them. It was not only a memorial of what Jesus had done but of what Jesus was accomplishing in them, today, the offering of his life.

Jesus Is the One Suffering. Bishop Claverie’s life was in imminent danger too. But his immense network of friendships in Algeria helped him feel a sense of solidarity. As he came home by a dangerous road one day, someone met him with champagne from an Algerian friend. Other friends stopped by with their children to deliver homemade bread, the “bread of friendship,” as Pierre called it.

But his most significant nourishment came from God through prayer. He always prayed for the safety of his people, but he also felt a contemplative peace about carrying on the activities of the diocese. This even included new projects for the country like a library that he opened at the height of the war. More than ever, it was necessary to view the Algerians “with trust, and goodwill, as from God’s perspective,” he told a group of major superiors in 1995.

Claverie spoke out against the violence in national debates and radio addresses. But he defended his own calling to remain in Algeria. “Isn’t it essential for Christians to be present in desolate and abandoned places?” he asked. “We are [in Algeria] for the sake of Jesus, because he is the one suffering there amid violence that spares no one, crucified again and again in the flesh of thousands of innocents.” Such bold confidence both irritated and puzzled his listeners. Wasn’t he scared?

“We’ve Already Given Our Lives.” On the evening of August 1, 1996, Pierre Claverie was returning from a meeting in Algiers with the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, where he had explained yet again why the Catholic religious intended to remain in Algeria. Claverie’s friend, Mohamed Bouchikhi, drove him back to his residence from the airport. When they opened the door, a bomb detonated and killed them both instantly.

Pierre Claverie and eighteen other “martyrs of Algeria” who died in the civil war were beatified in December 2018. The ceremony was in Oran, Algeria, the first time a beatification ceremony has taken place in a Muslim nation. This was meant as a gesture of the Church’s respect for the one hundred-fourteen imams and the nearly one hundred-fifty thousand moderate Algerians who were also killed in the war.

The testimony of Pierre Claverie and the Algerian martyrs lies in their conviction that their lives had already been given to God in a great surrender. Their deaths only confirmed something they chose the moment they dedicated themselves to the will of God, who is love. And that’s something that each and every one of us can do, wherever we are.

Kathryn Elliott is the features editor for the magazine.