Algeria: Deserted cathedrals, 'underground' Christians

Berber villages still host Christian communities

22 May, 18:33

    Inside the 19th century Notre Dame D'Afrique in Algiers Inside the 19th century Notre Dame D'Afrique in Algiers

    (By Elisa Pinna)

    (ANSAmed) - Algiers - Inside the 19th century Notre Dame D'Afrique Cathedral which sits above the city of Algiers the walls of the apse are covered in a simple message.

    "Mary Virgin pray for us and for Muslims," it reads.

    The Basilica of St Augustine in Annaba, once the ancient city of Hippo, is another symbolic monument of this coastal town and tourist spot where one of the most important fathers of Christianity was born. "Only foreigners go to those churches," a priest from the Congo told ANSAmed on a visit to the basilica where a bone of the saint is enshrined. Algeria has become a country that is 99.9% Muslim and at least officially there are no native Christians. But when you travel through the small villages of Kabylia in the north and the mountains in the south-east of Algiers, it is possible today to meet Christians among the Berber population.

    It is difficult to quantify because they don't practise their religion openly.

    "There are perhaps about some thousands," said a Muslim Berber official from the Algerian ministry of tourism.

    In Algeria the Berbers are an important minority, comprising around 40% of the population and are ethnically and culturally different from the Arab majority.

    Among the key figures in Berber ethnic history which originated in the Maghreb is Dihya, a queen who fought to the death against Arab invaders in the 7th century.

    Now the Berbers make up the majority of Muslims, but in several Algerian enclaves there is Christian and Jewish blood.

    During the civil war of the 1990s, "many Berber families in reaction against Muslim integration turned to Christianity" says an Algerian tour guide.

    "It was a common phenomenon even though it was in the small areas of the Kabylia", he added.

    In the uncertain climate that persists in Algeria today, none of them appear at public masses celebrated on Friday at the Notre Dame d'Afrique in Algiers.

    It is much easier to encounter Muslim families that pay homage to Mary, a figure that is even venerated in the Koran.


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