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Synod May Not Reflect North Africa Reality: Church Leaders
Pat Morrison
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Friday, September 25, 2009
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TUNIS, Tunisia—As the 2009 Synod of Bishops for Africa approaches, some portions of the African church do not find their experiences or issues reflected in the synod's themes, but at least one bishop believes North Africans can offer something unique to synod discussions.

Primarily in North Africa, bishops, their clergy and pastoral workers have said that while the Oct. 4-25 synod is well-intentioned, the Vatican does not seem to recognize that there are different issues in North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.

Among those concerned that their situation will not be represented are Catholics in Africa's Maghreb region—Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia—as well as Libya and Mauritania.

In an interview in his Tunis office earlier this year, Tunisian Bishop Maroun Lahham told Catholic News Service that CERNA, the regional bishops' conference of North Africa, sent a letter to the synod planners urging that the unique situation of the church in the Maghreb 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, adding 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 Sept. 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.

Bishop Lahham said the church in Tunisia has much more in common with the Arab world and with Europe than with the southern part of the continent, he said.

As a result, when "(sub-Saharan) Africa looks at the Maghreb, it sees us as Europe, as the West."

It's not just a matter of geography. The pastoral and social concerns of the two parts of the continent are very different. As the synod background paper noted, sub-Saharan Africa wrestles with population-decimating AIDS and other endemic diseases, genocide, increasing desertification and consequent food shortages, arms trafficking and government corruption, the rise of cults and religious fundamentalism, and ongoing ethnic violence.

For the church in Tunisia and its northern neighbors, the challenges are much more those of First World countries: globalization, growing commercialism and secularization, dealing morally with new wealth and modernization, expanded educational opportunities, maintaining traditional values in a rapidly changing society, and assimilating immigrants from other African countries.

Even the positive elements the synod documents outline about Africa do not fit the North.

"The vitality of typical African liturgies," for example, is 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. The growing indigenous vocations to the priesthood and religious life of the sub-Saharan countries are not found in the North, which relies on church personnel from other nations for its pastoral outreach.

Father Ramon Echeverria, a member of the Missionaries of Africa and vicar general of the Tunis Diocese, has served in Africa for more than 30 years, in the Maghreb and Tanzania. He said the Catholic Church in the Maghreb is "neither totally Arab nor European nor African. And, we are different from the Middle East."

Being a bridge, Father 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 have a unique gift to give to the universal church and the African synod: their positive relationship with Islam.

He noted that two-thirds of Arab Muslims—200 million—live in North Africa, and the church co-exists peacefully and well with the Muslim world here. 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 health care, he added.

Father 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.

"Here in Tunisia we have a lot of Muslims who are more secularized; 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 (wider) church know how to deal with Islam," he added.

"(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 Shariah, or Islamic law, to replace existing constitutions.

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