23 February 2018

Augustine of Hippo and Algeria (2)

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Article title: “Christians celebrate restored Algeria basilica”; subtitle: “Christian pilgrims from far and wide walk 700 metres up to reach Algeria's basilica to celebrate mass” (May 2, 2014). Article title: “Christians celebrate restored Algeria basilica”; subtitle: “Christian pilgrims from far and wide walk 700 metres up to reach Algeria's basilica to celebrate mass” (May 2, 2014). http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/christians-celebrate-restored-algeria-basilica-1476125170

In the first half I looked at the life and work of St. Augustine (354-430), mostly focusing on his multiple identities and how this may have helped him carry out the momentous mission he believed God had given him. I also discussed his view of politics and the surprising fact that, considering his strong views on original sin, he seemed fairly hopeful about people banding together around “the love of peace or the desire for security.”

Amazingly, dozens of articles and books on this greatest of Church Fathers are still published every year in many languages around the world. Yet the most surprising fact of all, as I see it, is that in this new century Augustine has been claimed by Algeria as one of their own.

The story begins officially in 1999 when the Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, attended the annual conference of an Italian Catholic movement (Communion and Liberation) in Remini. On the occasion of a speech he gave there, Bouteflika launches into a chorus of praise for the fourth-century theologian. I translate here an excerpt from that speech in French. After a section mentioning the great Berber kings of the second century BCE, Massinissa and Jugurtha, he turns to Augustine:


“And then, what can we say about the Algerian Augustine who contributed so much to the Church? Theologian, philosopher, writer and activist, author of the Confessions and the City of God, he was the bishop of Hippo, today’s Annaba in the western part of this land where he died. He was rightly considered one of the most influential and prestigious Catholic Church Fathers. It was said of him, ‘He treated legal questions like a Roman lawyer, and exegetical questions like a great theologian of Alexandria. He argued like an Athenian philosopher. He told anecdotes like a nobleman from Carthage and stories of the exploits of Berber militia like a worker from Hippo.’ Do I dare add that he was Cartesian before Descartes himself?”


Then he announced that in 2001 Algeria would host an international colloquium on Augustine, “the Algerian Philosopher.” More on that below, but in the meantime, during a 2000 state visit to France Bouteflika addressed its National Assembly. Surprisingly (think of France and its laïcité!), in one passage he pays homage to the work of the Catholic Church in Algeria. And I quote from an article in the French Catholic periodical La Croix that in his speech he called all Muslim nations to dialogue with other cultures and religions and even to emulate the Church’s public apologies and repentance. He also wanted “to pay tribute to the Church’s acts of abnegation,” and in particular “when it resolutely pursued in the darkest days of its tribulation its mission of witness and human solidarity in my country.” Specifically he condemned the assassination of the seven Trappist monks and of Bishop Claverie in 1996 during the civil war period. These acts represent “a grave insult to Algeria, a land of hospitality, and to Islam, a religion of tolerance.”

[The ordeal of the seven Trappist monks was beautifully and dramatically captured in the 2010 film Of Gods and Men , which won first prize at Cannes that year]

The 1990s were indeed Algeria’s darkest days since it achieved independence from the French after a brutal eight-year war that killed over a million of them (see these two blogs). Around 200,000 Algerians, mostly civilians, died in the civil war from the bomb blasts, shootings and massacres of entire villages. No wonder the president, who had recently declared a unilateral amnesty, was eager to work for national healing and mend Algeria’s reputation for murderous violence in the name of religion and politics!

The international colloquium on St. Augustine did take place as planned in 2001 (April 1-7). In the end, it was co-sponsored by the Swiss Confederation and the Algerian High Islamic Council of Algeria. Bouteflika had chosen that year, partly because the United Nations had proclaimed it as the Year of the Dialogue of Cultures and Civilizations, and partly because it was the beginning a new millennium with high hopes for new and joyful developments. It was a resounding success. Close to fifty Augustine scholars and archeologists from twenty-seven countries came together for sessions both in Algiers and Annaba.

There was plenty of national and regional pride on display too. I have in front of me the book gathering all the papers presented on that occasion: Augustinus Afer: saint Augustin, africanité et universalité (eds. Pierre-Yves Fux et al., Fribourg, Switzerland: Editions Universitaires, 2003). In his opening speech, the president thanks his “friend and brother,” the Sorbonne Augustinian specialist André Mandouze for pointing him to the words given by a colleague (Henri Irénée Marrou) at a Mediterranean congress in 1976:

“Today I would like to show that a transfer has been made from the south to the north … from Africa to Europe … I don’t know if you North Africans have given this enough thought … I believe that you North Africans should be quite proud of the fact that you offered Europe the masters who formed its thinking, whether it be Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine … All of Europe was thus fertilized and educated by your ancestors, your fathers, dear North Africans.”


Two North African witnesses

Just as an example, I would like to cite two of the conference contributors whose papers are found in this book, Augustinus Afer. Both have North African names and both are archeologists working for UNESCO in Paris: the Algerian Mounir Bouchenaki, and the other, the Tunisian Azedine Beschaouch. Both write in French (four fifths of the book is in French).

Bouchenaki’s chapter (131-9) is entitled, “Augustine and African Identity, from historical works and the study of the sites of Thagastus, Hippo, and Carthage.” His thesis is that Augustine’s rich correspondence has been under-studied so far, and with some examination his letters contain a rich record of the political, legal, social and economic context of Augustine’s writing. It also sheds light on his attitudes toward the people, towns and villages of his native land. He has often been accused of being overly pro-Roman, but do the writings bear this out?

His review of the historical literature on this period in North Africa, whether under Rome’s imperial rule or independent of it, shows that Christianity had largely replaced paganism and “had acquired incomparable influence and prestige.” As dominant as it was, however, it was also racked by internal divisions, which at times could turn violent. But just to give an idea of the numbers, 565 bishops took part at the Church Council of Carthage in 411, with both Catholics and Donatists present. That is a huge representation, considering that there there were only 600 towns in North Africa at the time.

But how was Augustine different from his fellow countrymen? He was certainly not distinguished from them by race. Besides the indigenous population of the countryside and mountainous regions that spoke a punic language (lingua Punica, the ancestor of today’s many Berber dialects), those living in the towns were educated in Latin and identified much more with their Roman identity. Some of them were transplants from Italy, but others were Greek-speaking from other parts of the empire.

Augustine was of local stock, though well educated. According to the sources Bouchenaki quotes, Augustine grew up in more humble circumstances than I thought (using the sources I did for the first part of this blog). His father owned a vineyard, but in his letters Augustine himself uses the adjectives “modest” and “poor” to describe his upbringing. His father apparently struggled to send his son to Madaurus to study with a famous grammarian for three years. After coming back, Augustine was then stuck for a whole year in Thagaste before his father could persuade an acquaintance to finance his son’s rhetoric studies in the capital city, Carthage, some 280 kms east of there.

Bouchenaki quotes a number of scholars to show that Augustine’s sermons contain a treasure-trove of information on the various basilicas dedicated to martyrs in Carthage, on the various localities in the vicinity of Hippo, without mentioning notes on his other travels on Church business east and west. Thus by perusing his hundreds of letters and sermons, we see a man profoundly connected to his African soil and to the people he serves with such attachment and love.

At one point Augustine corresponded with the famous grammarian of Madaurus, Maximus. The latter had spoken disparagingly about Christians who gave more honor to the martyr Namphano than to the immortal gods of Rome. Augustine was no pushover and he wrote back, “You could have found plenty of things to mock in Rome, with the god Sterculius [god of feces], the goddess Cloacina [associated with Rome’s sewers], and the bald Venus [one of her post-classical forms]. How could you have renounced your own African origins by attacking Punic names? Are we not both Africans?”

I love Bouchenaki’s pithy conclusion paragraph, summing up so well his own love and esteem for this fourth-century “ancestor”:


“In the town of Hippo now under siege in 430 by the Vandals, seventy-six-year old Bishop Augustine, son of Numidia and pillar of the Roman Church, is about to experience the distress of its population and breathe his last in August of that same year.”


Azedine Beschaouch’s shorter article, “Saint Augustine and the land of Carthage,” tells of his love for Carthage, its ruins and its glorious history, and how, as an archeologist who has covered most of the Roman sites of Tunisia, he has at times, “with the help of Providence, walked, as it were, in the physical footsteps of Augustine in the regions surrounding Carthage.” Once, in the ruins of ancient Mustis on the road Augustine would have taken from Thagaste to Carthage, he discovered a commemorative plaque with the first ever inscription bearing the name of the proconsul of the African province Helvius Vindicianus dated 380-381. He wrote up the finding and his article was published in 1968.

Another discovery brought him much closer to Saint Augustine. For years archeologists had been searching for the town of Abitina, where the famous African martyrs, men and women, were tortured and killed in February 304 under the reign of Diocletian. Augustine had written about this event in great detail in several places. Thanks to some of these details, Bouchenaki discovered the exact place by means of two inscriptions. Perhaps they should have trusted local lore a bit more, because the Arabic name for that place was “Shuhud al-Batin,” literally, the “the martyrs of Batin” (or Abitinia).

Besides the archeological discoveries, Beschaouch’s piece tenderly reflects his own affection, both for Carthage and Augustine. He writes,


“Carthage represented for Saint Augustine the privileged site for his preaching and his doctrinal stands. In that respect, one should think of one of his most beautiful sermons, the one he delivered end of June or beginning of July 397, which he dedicated to the theme of love, both the love for God and the love for neighbor. He was referencing the great commandment: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your mind’; and the second commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”


I cannot help but interject the following thought here. Beschaouch wrote these lines at least three years before Prince Ghazi of Jordan penned the historic “Common Word Letter” addressed to Pope Benedict XVI and all Christian leaders and signed by 138 leading Islamic scholars and clerics worldwide. It was an invitation for Christians and Muslims to unite in dialogue over the heart of both traditions: love of God and love of neighbor (I explain this in more detail in the following blog post).


Last words from the Augustinian priest in Hippo

Lucien Borg is the Augustinian priest serving at the Saint Augustine Basilica above the ancient ruins of Hippo in Annaba, Algeria (see picture above). He wanted to record his own version of how this historic conference went. In his article in the September/October 2001 issue of their Augustinian Assumptionist journal, Borg quotes another Catholic author, Michel Kubler, who stated that “the colloquium which Algeria consecrated to Saint Augustine constituted a genuine rehabilitation.” Indeed it was, he adds. For years the Catholic Church in Algeria dreamt about such an event, but it seemed very unlikely. Naturally, he writes, some of the islamist factions opposed it from the start, “seeing it as a veiled attempt to Christianize the Algerian people and therefore as a threat for Islam.” He then cites a front page article in an Algerian newspaper only two weeks after the conference which stated that “six Algerians convert to Christianity every day.”

Borg had been part of the planning committee for the colloquium, and he mentioned how carefully he and his colleagues were to avoid any unnecessary polemics. The result, therefore, exceeded all expectations. As we saw, it was spearheaded by the president from the start, and let me add that despite the appearance of democratic governance, Algeria remains a mostly authoritarian state. So let’s not be surprised that the High Islamic Council co-sponsored the event with the Swiss authorities. The Algerian postal service even issued two stamps on the occasion.

Still, Borg believes this represented a sea change in official Algerian political and cultural attitudes. Now they are drawing up plans to have a museum dedicated to Augustine in Annaba. In 2015 the University of Annaba sponsored an international conference on Augustine. Now back to 2001, Borg quotes from the president’s official address:


“[A conference on Augustine] offers a privileged platform for a common reflection which will allow us to highlight our similarities, indicate our points of convergence, and lay the foundation of an ethics of inter-civilizational relations built on respect, mutual understanding and solidarity … The study of Augustine is incredibly relevant today, and the debates that will naturally flow out of it can contribute to our making progress together, as diverse as we are, toward a peaceful world, a world of justice and brotherhood to which all people of good will have aspired since the beginning of time.”


Borg here is certain that Mr. Bouteflika was sincere in stating this. I think too that Augustine himself would be heartened – sad to see the disappearance of the church in his region for so many centuries but glad to see that it is slowly growing again. He would especially rejoice that his life and writings can still spread some of the values of the Heavenly City among the inhabitants of our earthly city, and especially in his native land.