Interreligious Dialogue in Algeria

The Experience of Missionary Father Silvano Zoccarato

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By Father Piero Gheddo

ROME, OCT. 9, 2009 ( A beautiful example of interreligious dialogue carried out with a degree of success (the «dialogue of life,» not the theological dialogue) is taking place in Algeria, a country tormented by a protracted civil war and terrorist acts that hinder the country’s development.
Algerian Christians are a minority in a country of 36 million inhabitants, which is rich in natural resources, but whose development has been hampered by political instability and the fact that over 30% of the population is illiterate.
There are a few thousand Catholics among the technicians and workers in the oil wells of the desert. In the early years of Christianity, Algeria was Christian. In modern times, the White Fathers (Missionaries of Africa) of cardinal Carlo Marziale Lavigerie (1825-1892), archbishop of Algiers, re-founded the Church in Algeria, which today is present with four diocese: Algiers, Costantina, Oran and Laghouat-Ghardaia.
By invitation of the bishop of the latter, «the diocese of the Sahara desert,» the missionaries of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) took over the parish of Touggourt, where the Sisters of Blessed Father De Foucauld also reside.
Father Silvano Zoccarato, who was a missionary in Cameroon for 30 years, has been there since 2006 with two young missionary priests, Father Emmanuel Cardani (of the Diocese of Novara, associated to PIME) and Father David Carraro.
After three years in a traditional Muslim city, Father Zoccarato has published a booklet of notable expressive force on his still brief experience of life among Algerian Muslims: «Cartoline dall’Algeria» («Postcards from Algeria») (PIME, Milan, 2009, 64 pages).
The booklet is not an organic resume of his experience, but virtually a little blog reporting on his day, encounters with people, visits to Muslim leaders and their families, the teaching of French and Italian to young people anxious to know and learn, and the Holy Mass at dawn with three or four Sisters of Blessed De Foucauld, also present in Touggourt, in the house where their congregation was founded.
Pages of evangelical wisdom in the Sahara desert, living with hospitable people ready for dialogue and help, but, of course, not being able to proclaim clearly Jesus, the Gospel, Christianity and much less «conversion» to Christ, so as not to run the risk of being accused and expelled for «proselytism.»
Father Zoccarato came from Cameroon, where for 30 years he experienced the joy, at times full and explosive, of missionary life, among peoples who receive Christ and let themselves be conquered by the Gospel, manifesting their enthusiasm openly with songs and exhausting dances for the gift of the faith received.
In Algeria he is experiencing another type of missionary presence among non-Christians and he has, so to speak, the humility and flexibility to accept it with simplicity and joy, without lamenting the past.
He knows, and says so in «Cartoline dell’Algeria,» that also seeds sown in the desert (of the Sahara) bear good fruits by the power of the Holy Spirit.
A great lesson for all of us, priests, sisters, deacons, etc… that live as if God did not exist. We are tempted to discouragement, depression, abandonment, thinking that everything is useless.
One day, a parish priest said to me: «What am I doing among these people? I have tried everything and almost no one follows me!»

Father Zoccarato has also had such doubts and temptations, but he has experienced that faith in the mysterious but real action of the Holy Spirit gives him peace and joy to continue in his mission.
His life is one of prayer, study, hospitality, relationships, friendships and mutual help with the people of Touggourt, in a word, «the dialogue of life,» and not much else.
He says he feels «the call to more profound prayer» and does everything he can in that situation, asking the Holy Spirit to do the rest.
 [Translation by ZENIT]

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Father Piero Gheddo, is currently director of Mondo e Missione and of Italia Missionaria, and is the founder of AsiaNews. Since 1994, he is the director of PIME’s historical office and postulator of several causes of canonization. He teaches in PIME’s pre-theological seminary in Rome. He is the author of more than 70 books.

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