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from issue no. 10/11 - 2009

Christians in the lands of the Koran

“Inter prospera humiles et inter adversa securi”

The connecting thread that runs through the different moments of Christian presence in Tunisia is that of a certain occasionality, intermittent and precarious. So it’s easier to ask to be humble in good times and calm in adversity

by Gianni Valente

The grandeur of the Cathedral, overlooking the chaotic bustle of Place de l’Indépendance, always makes an impression. The two towers climb into the sky of Tunis, away from the noise of horns and the bars between Avenue Bourguiba and Avenue de France, far above the palm trees of the gardens, the flags on lamp posts and portraits of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. If you go inside, even the niches with images and statues of saints, the mosaics of the popes born in Tunisia, the capitals, the main altar all give the sense of a former greatness.
When it was finally consecrated in 1953, it had been in use for almost sixty years. And those decades of temporary operation in the great unfinished church, with building work always going on, were the time of High Mass with thousands of faithful, processions, choirs, feast-organizing committees, preachers who filled the aisles.
Now, the same aisles are oversized for the few who come one by one and go to sit in the small chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, for the daily evening Mass. Different languages, different ages, different skin colors. With the liturgy celebrated in French and Italian. On the back bench there is also Bishop Maroun, reading the breviary under his breath.

The Cathedral of St Vincent de Paul 
in Tunis [© Corbis]

The Cathedral of St Vincent de Paul in Tunis [© Corbis]

From Augustine to the western slaves
Ahmed moves with the familiarity of someone who is at home between one site and another of the great archeological area of Carthage, in his Renault Mégane. And in that coastal plain marked by the works of men of different and remote ages, between the monumental thermal baths and the Roman ports, he knows how to find even the most hidden corners that have to do with names and stories familiar in shared Christian memory. For years, with his travel agency TunisAurea he has worked for pilgrimages organized by the tour operator Brevivet leading sweltering groups of tourists in the footsteps of Saint Augustine, or on the trail of the ancient diocese of Africa Vetus, sometimes crossing into Algeria to take them as far as the hermitage of Charles de Foucauld. He is keen to point out the Roman amphitheater where Perpetua and Felicity found the triumph of their martyrdom, and the remains of the Basilica of Saint Cyprian, where Augustine had left his mother Monica to weep and pray as he embarked for Rome, rending her heart (but “it is impossible that a son of so many tears should be lost”, Ambrose was to tell her one day). He does not forget to show the ruins of the Domus Caritatis, the seat of the Primate of Carthage, “who at that time was more important than the Pope”. As a Muslim, he speaks with affection and without emphasis of “our Tunisian Church”. He doesn’t seem to be looking for facile jokes, even when he describes with simplicity Monsignor Maroun as “my bishop”.
Of bishops, in the fourth century, North Africa counted three hundred and fifty. They had already become seven hundred by 430. According to today’s islamophobes, the disappearance of that flourishing Christianity should all be put down to the ancestors of Ahmed, the Arab-Muslim conquerors of the seventh century, and to the indigenous Berbers who joined the new religion. But they play with numbers and forget certain things. How, centuries before Muhammad, the Donatist schism, which, at the time of Augustine, numbered as many bishops as the Catholic Church, and then the Arian heresy imposed by the Vandal conquest. Not to mention the Berber people who had never embraced the faith in Jesus Christ, having identified it with the indigestible imperial pax romana. If in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Maghreb there is no trace of the indigenous churches of apostolic origin that in Egypt and the Arab countries of the Middle East have so far traversed centuries of Islamic civilization, perhaps the lack is due less to Islam than to the impact in late antique Africa of the great misunderstanding of the Donatists, who forgot that the sacraments belong to the Lord and are not owned by the Church.
The less biased historical studies also belie the cliché of the final and complete disappearance of Christianity from Tunisian soil after the Islamic conquest. Something always remained in the often paradoxical vicissitudes of history. When the Normans arrived in the 11th century, the Christians of strategic Mahdia make common cause with the Muslims, who found refuge in the churches in the coastal town to escape the incursions of the invaders coming from Sicily. The local chronicles record the existence of Christian villages in the oases of Nefzawa, Gafsa and Nephthys in the 14th century. And already long before, there were those who had taken the name of Christ into the lands of present Tunisia following the roller-coaster ride of historical and social contingencies. They were merchants from Provence, Sicilian artisans, Genoese sailors putting up churches and chapels in their scattered bases in Tunis, Bizerta, Sfax, Gabès and Djerba. They were the Spanish Dominicans who opened a center for Arabic studies in Tunis in 1250. They were the soldiers of the French Guard serving the Bey, the vassal ruler of the Sublime Porte who governed Ottoman Tunisia. Especially they were the baptized slaves who ended up in his subject lands. In Tunis alone, during the belle époque of piracy, there were at least 11,000 held in thirteen penal settlements with churches and chapels officiated by priests, slaves themselves. St Vincent de Paul took that situation as the starting point for the sui generis missions of his priests on Tunisian soil: annual expeditions made for the purpose of ransoming Christian slaves with money or spiritually supporting those left behind and averting the danger of apostasy. In that work Father Jean Le Vacher was to become a martyr, his body tied across the mouth of a cannon. But there were also periods of calm, with priests and Christian slaves allowed to pray and sing in solemn procession on feast days.

Victory Square, near the medina of Tunis <BR>[© Eyedea/Contrasto]

Victory Square, near the medina of Tunis
[© Eyedea/Contrasto]

Lavigerie’s dream
“Sine dubio post Romanum Pontificem primus archiepiscopus Nubiae et totius Africae maximus metropolitanus est carthaginiensis episcopus”. The Latin inscription above the nave of the Cathedral of St Louis, on the hill-acropolis of Byrsa, repeats the key passage of the bull in which Leo IX (1049-1054) confirmed the primacy of Carthage for the whole of Africa. A recognition that came a little late, given that the North African Christianity told of by Cyprian, Augustine and Fulgentius had waned centuries earlier. But on the eve of the twentieth century, at the time of the French protectorate, the great ecclesial dream centered on ancient Carthage was taken up by Charles Lavigerie, founder of the White Fathers, archbishop of Carthage from 1884 and future cardinal. The cathedral raised on the ancient acropolis, holding the relics of St Louis, is the architectural icon of that design: an imposing re-plantatio Ecclesiae, after centuries of concealment.
In the following decades, the generous apostolic aspiration seems to be taking shape. In 1891 the Catholic foreigners present in Tunisia – mostly French and Italian, with Maltese as a third group – were already more than 100,000. They were to become 240,000 by 1946. In that span of time vibrant Catholicism, largely French in tint, grafted on to Tunisian soil all the robust range of devotions and charities that bloomed in the homeland. Chapels, colleges, hospitals, seminaries, Conferences of St Vincent and groups of Catholic Action. In the ’twenties of last century more than a thousand men and women religious were carrying out their apostolate in Tunisian territory. And then dispensaries, blessings of voitures
French Catholic civilization in Tunisia celebrated its glory by following step by step the dynamics and convulsions of its homeland Catholicism, basically remaining an “over the border” society impervious to the Arab Muslim world in which it lived. In 1933 a statue of Lavigerie giving a blessing was raised in the square at the entrance of the medina, just in front of the Koranic school. Whereas the Italian Catholics (mainly Sicilians) and their priests – the missionary Francois Dornier notes it several times in his fine book Les catholiques en Tunisie au fil des jours – learned Arabic and mingled with the locals. But towards the end of the war, the conflicts afflicting the so-called Christian nations of Europe took away focus and impetus from the stories on the fervor of church life in that overseas land.
In 1948 the hosts distributed during Masses still numbered 1,200,000. Some few years afterwards all that world seems to evaporate. In 1956, when the rebel Tunisia of Habib Bourguiba reached the goal of national independence, the statue of Lavigerie at the entrance to the Tunis souk was immediately taken down. Religious symbol of a colonial elite now overwhelmed by history. Emblem of a past that was not however liquidated with a summary conviction in the minds of Tunisians. “For us, the Church of that time was that of the priests who blessed the soldiers and the occupation forces, with their reprisals. But the nuns no, they were good, they helped ordinary people. Even then, we were fond of them”, the tour operator Ahmed says today, searching his boyhood memories for rather eloquent distinctions.

The minaret of the mosque in the old city of Tunis [© Corbis]

The minaret of the mosque in the old city of Tunis [© Corbis]

Without claiming anything
The Europeans in Tunisia had reached the record figure of 270,000 in 1956, reduced three years later to 70,000. An internal survey in 1964 found less than eight thousand practicing Catholics throughout the whole country. That same year the Holy See and the Tunisian state signed the modus vivendi whereby the relationship between the Catholic Church and independent Tunisia was re-established on a new footing. The most glaring example was the transfer to the Tunisian state of most church property. Of the hundred churches scattered over the former French protectorate, over ninety were desecrated. Even today, also the wide aisles of the great Cathedral of St Louis in Carthage are used to host concerts and painting exhibitions.
For those who remained – bishops, priests, religious, lay people – the years following Tunisian independence were traumatic. Years of attempts, sometimes a bit abstract and verbose, to accommodate to what had happened with an effort at analysis and self-awareness. But there were also many who embraced their new condition of poverty. Working in silence, without fretting or complexes. Taking it as it comes. With at times a purer heart and clear-sightedness. In an Arab country with a Muslim majority, which gradually unfolded all its anomalies, with laws of a secularizing guise where women have the right to vote and may have abortions in the hospitals since the ’fifties, and even the mosques and Koranic schools are required to respect the secular nature of public space.
If there is a thread of reasoning that runs through the different moments of Christian presence in Tunisia is that of a certain occasionality, intermittent and precarious. An inability to “take root”, a dependency on external factors – like the unexpected ups and downs of history, or the distance from Europe exploitable for tourism – which sometimes swell the river and sometimes reduce it to a small stream almost lost in the desert. As in the days of the Church of the 17th century, consisting of Levantine merchants and slaves. As was evident in the ’nineties of last century, when one could count the baptisms celebrated annually across the country on the fingers of one hand whereas still in the ’twenties there were more than three thousand.
Perhaps for that reason Bishop Maroun does not seem worried. He is trustingly open to the unexpected. Such as the move to Tunis of the African Development Bank, which in recent years has brought hundreds of African families into his diocese who now fill the cathedral at Sunday Mass. And then there’s the arrival and passage of African students, Middle Eastern Christians, and the millions of western tourists who each year land in Tunis, Djerba, Tabarka, Hammamet ... “This is precisely the Catholic Church”, he says laughing at the many or few déracinés, a mixture of different people, individuals and families who come and go, passing through or staying, following the sometimes tortuous paths of their own vital interests. As a Palestinian from Jordan he knows the Bedouins and well knows that light tents are better suited to desert life and the mobility of the global world. As a Christian he has learned that one does not “found” a church as one does a house, a company, a cultural association, a party. One does not “plant” it as one plants trees, or pillars of reinforced concrete. He knows that they will not put up statues and monuments for him. And he is surprised to think that perhaps all this is a condition suited to repeating the words of his fellow countryman Augustine: “Tutiores vivimus si totum Deo Damus”. We live more tranquilly, if we entrust everything to the Lord.

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