PAT MORRISON IN TUNISIA
A TUNISIAN bishop attending the African synod next week has said its themes do not relate to north Africa.
Bishop Maroun Lahham, a synod delegate, said that CERNA, the regional bishops’ conference of north Africa, had written to the synod planners calling for the unique situation of the Maghreb region – Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia — to be taken into account.
He said that although “the Maghreb is geographically in Africa, it’s another reality totally. We are two very different worlds.” He said that when he read the working papers for the synod: “I have to say I didn’t find myself or this Church” reflected in them.
When Vatican officials speak of Africa, he said, “it’s black Africa”, not the northern countries.
“I think there should be a synod for the Middle East, for the Arab world, north Africa,” Bishop Lahham said.
On September 19 the Vatican announced a synod for the Middle East for 2010, but it will not include north Africa. Three days later, Pope Benedict XVI named Bishop Lahham one of the delegates to the African synod, which begins on Sunday.
Bishop Lahham said the Church in Tunisia had much more in common with the Arab world and with Europe than with the southern part of the continent.
As a result, when “[subSaharan] Africa looks at the Maghreb, it sees us as Europe, as the West”.
The synod background paper listed the problems of sub-Saharan Africa as including Aids and other endemic diseases, genocide, desertification and consequent food shortages, arms trafficking and government corruption, the rise of cults and religious fundamentalism, and ongoing ethnic violence.
But, according to bishops, clergy and pastoral workers in north Africa, the challenges are similar to those of the developed world: globalisation, growing commercialism and secularisation, dealing morally with new wealth and modernisation, expanded educational opportunities, maintaining traditional values in a rapidly changing society and assimilating immigrants from other African countries.
Church officials pointed out that even the positive elements that the synod documents outline about Africa do not fit the north. They said “the vitality of typical African liturgies”, for example, was not really applicable in the Maghreb, where French, Italian and German are the liturgical languages, because the majority of the Catholic population is made up of expatriates and tourists.
Fr Ramon Echeverria, a member of the Missionaries of Africa and vicar general of the Tunis diocese, said the Catholic Church in the Maghreb was “neither totally Arab nor European nor African. And we are different from the Middle East.” Being a bridge, Fr Echeverria said, “seems to be part of our specificity and vocation”.
Bishop Lahham said that, as a part of this vocation, the churches of north Africa had a unique gift to give to the universal Church and the African synod: their positive relationship with Islam.
He said that two thirds of Arab Muslims – 200 million – live in North Africa, and the Church co-exists peacefully and well with them. Because of the tolerance and openness of Tunisia, the Catholic Church enjoys freedom unknown in other places, the bishop said. Its work is highly respected, especially in education and healthcare, he added.
Fr Echeverria said that because of their ongoing contact with Europe through business and their higher educational levels, Muslims of the Maghreb tend to be more open to dialogue and to western values than Muslims in other parts of Africa.
He said: “Here in Tunisia we have a lot of Muslims who are more secularised. They value their religion, but they also value moderation and dialogue with other religions, especially the Catholic Church,” he said. “That’s not the case in other parts of Africa. The experience we can bring is a very positive one.
“We have specific experience that can help the Church know how to deal with Islam,” he said.
“[Our experience] would also help the other African countries, because they have a quite different experience of Islam than ours” – more militant Islam in the south, for example, and the push among some governments for Sharia, or Islamic law, to replace existing constitutions.
The 2009 Synod of Bishops for Africa starts on Sunday, October 4, and continues until October 25.