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REPORTAGE FROM TUNISIA
from issue no. 10/11 - 2009

A meeting with Bishop Maroun Lahham

A Palestinian in Tunis



Interview with Maroun Lahham by Stefania Falasca


Maroun Lahham is the second Arab bishop to lead the Church in Tunisia who comes from the Land of Jesus. If his predecessor Fouad Twal, current Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, always remembers his Bedouin ancestry, Maroun certainly has never forgotten he is a Palestinian from Jordan. He does not forget the long years spent in Beit Jala, between Bethlehem and Beit Sahour, as rector of the Patriarchal Latin Seminary. Nor has he forgotten the Arab dishes his mother taught him to cook, “because when you’re a priest you will have no wife, and must cope on your own”.

Monsignor Maroun Lahham [© Osservatore Romano]

Monsignor Maroun Lahham [© Osservatore Romano]

Your cathedral bears the names of St Vincent de Paul and Saint Oliva, a saint dear to the Sicilians. To see the merging of history and realities of different origin seems written in the destiny of the Church in Tunisia...
MAROUN LAHHAM: At that time the French were in command, but there were very many Italians, they were the people of the faithful... Now, in the ten parishes of Tunisia, there are 42 priests, from many nationalities, and among them only one is Arab, from Jordan. Before independence there were a hundred churches. With the modus vivendi of 1964, the agreement signed with the independent state, the Church held on to what was needed for the Catholic people who remained after most had gone away. The rest it ceded to the state: 96 churches out of a 100, which were all deconsecrated. Now we have taken back a few.
Where?
LAHHAM: In Djerba the church was recently reconsecrated. In recent years there has been a huge tourist influx there. And since there’s also a synagogue there, the government was keen to make a showcase of tolerant Tunisia, with the church, mosque and the synagogue. And it suited the tourists.
Of course, its no longer the time of Tunisie catholique...
LAHHAM: Cardinal Lavigerie wanted to recreate the glory of Carthage, in conjunction with the French colonial presence. He got himself appointed primate of all Africa, even with a Latin bull. After independence, the Church was reduced to a minimum. But those who remained, including bishops and priests, had chosen to help the people to build their own state. Almost with a sense of reparation: now this country is born, and we who were the colonists must be here to help. Many priests have worked in the ministries, schools, hospitals, because Tunisia did not have the necessary personnel.
In any case, some Catholic social institutions never disappeared.
LAHHAM: The Saint Augustin clinic, for example, has been active since 1933. Then it was the first clinic in Tunisia, and the only Catholic clinic in the whole of the Maghreb.
And then there are the schools.
LAHHAM: We have ten, with 5,000 Muslim students and Muslim staff. So we keep in touch with thousands of families, and they see a church that serves the people. In the hope that this helps rear a generation open towards others.
Your flock gathers from time to time in a somewhat casual way, so to speak.
LAHHAM: Certainly it’s a Church sui generis, with people coming from all over, part of the great melting-pot of our times. A few years ago hundreds of families of employees of the Bank of Africa arrived, which had transferred its headquarters here, because Tunisia is a quiet place. Now there is talk of a great French Airbus project, which should bring other foreign workers here. But there are already more than three thousand firms working under license, employing more than 300,000 Tunisians. There are no indigenous Christian communities as in the countries of the Middle East. The few local Christians are singular cases who come from Muslim families.
Is that regular?
LAHHAM: Proselytizing is forbidden. But it is forbidden for everyone, including Muslims. If someone, by his own individual pathway, changes religion, even if from Muslim he becomes Christian, he doesn’t lose his civil rights. Sure, it’s a difficult choice because of the social pressure and hostility that it provokes within the family, but there are no barriers of a legal and institutional kind.
The primatial Basilica of St Louis in Carthage

The primatial Basilica of St Louis in Carthage

However, Tunisia is the land of Tertullian and Cyprian. Of the Scillitan martyrs, of Perpetua and Felicity. In concrete pastoral practice, what effect does the memory of these names have?
LAHHAM: We have had conferences on Augustine, Tertullian, and in a year’s time we shall have one on Cyprian, in collaboration with the Ben Ali Chair for Inter-religious Dialogue. But in ordinary pastoral practice, reference to the illustrious past has not yet had any great effect. It has it most of all in the relationship with the Arab Muslim world in Tunis. They recognize themselves in that Christian past, they feel that it is part of their history, indeed they are proud of it. This contributes to the spirit of moderation characteristic of Tunisia. They know that here Christianity was not just a derivative of modern French colonization.
We were told that in the common feeling, even in the days of colonization, the nuns were always seen as the good side of the Church. Those that helped people and the poor.
LAHHAM: Now there are 120 sisters in Tunisia, belonging to about fifteen congregations. They do valuable work, also with the work for disabled and those helping schools. In the afternoon, many convents that have a library open their doors to the neighborhood children who can’t pay for tuition and private lessons. There are hundreds of them, every day.
You participated in the Synod of Bishops on Africa. What was your contribution?
LAHHAM: At the Synod I mentioned the relationship with Islam that we experience in the countries of the Maghreb. When people speak of Islam in Africa, they only think of what is happening in black Africa, and forget that out of 350,000,000 Muslim Arabs more than 200,000,000 are in North Africa. We live in a different situation from that of the rest of Africa, indeed there are cases where there are Christians and Muslims in the same family, and mixed marriages are frequent. But we are also far away from the islamophobia wandering round Europe. In the Middle East Christians and Muslims belong to the same people. Arab churches are recognized as indigenous realities pre-existing Islam even by such political forces of Islam as Hamas and Hezbollah. We, however, are like small minorities, no longer colonial but still foreign, gathered here by the whims of circumstance, in a world completely Islamic. At all events, we don’t seem so sad to me.


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