25 May 2017

Cardinal Duval: A Life Poured out for the Love of Algeria (1)

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This book was a present from the Catholic Archdiocese in Algiers right after it came out in 1984. This book was a present from the Catholic Archdiocese in Algiers right after it came out in 1984. My photo

From one angle, human history is an unbroken chain of strong nations invading, abusing and controlling weaker nations. With time they lose their grip, weaken and fall prey to other rising powers; and the cycle goes on.

Empires rise and fall, and as young male lions compete, sometimes to the death, for the honor of leading a “pride” of mostly females, so ascending nations vie for a greater share of economic, strategic and political power at the expense of surrounding nations. Today this process is unfolding before our eyes in ominous ways.

The prophet Jeremiah had the most challenging and tragic calling of all the Hebrew prophets. He spent his whole life transmitting God’s message of judgment to the remaining southern tribes of Israel (Judah and Benjamin), after the northern kingdom had been carried away into exile by the Assyrians two centuries before – yet all in vain it would seem.

Because of the violent oppression of the poor by the rich and because of their idolatrous ways, God’s wrath, as Jeremiah and others had predicted, swept over Judah in the form of a Babylonian invasion in 586 BCE. Jerusalem and its temple were razed, most people were slaughtered, while the elites were taken into captivity and a few hundred common people were allowed to stay under a governor chosen by Babylon. Jeremiah stayed too, now an old man, but soon the governor revolted and had to flee to Egypt, where Jeremiah soon died.

We now have a whole, separate book by Jeremiah after the fall of Jerusalem, five chapters long, entitled “Lamentations.” But I believe God laments every single act of conquest and dispossession. Here are a few excerpts to give you an idea:


Judah has been led into captivity,

oppressed with cruel slavery.

She lives among foreign nations

and has no place to rest.

Her enemies have chased her down,

and she has nowhere to turn.

The roads to Jerusalem are in mourning,

for crowds no longer come to celebrate the festivals.

The city gates are silent,

her priests groan,

her young women are crying –

how bitter is her fate!

Her oppressors have become her master,

and her enemies prosper,

for the Lord has punished Jerusalem for her many sins.

Her children have been captured

and taken to distant lands. (Lamentations 1:3-5)


Algeria, French colonialism, and the Church

As I convalesce from a total hip replacement last week, I’ve had more time to think, pray, and read outside my usual box. For some reason, Algeria has been on my mind. I did live there between 1978 and 1987, but also I’ve been meaning for a while to read the above book and write a couple of blogs on it. After all, I knew the Cardinal personally and many of the priests who worked under him. What is more, he came to our wedding in Algiers! Yet more significantly, he was the single most influential Christian leader in Algeria in the 20th century and his legacy has much to do with the values of this website.

Then our son just finished writing his Masters’ thesis in history at the University of California at Santa Cruz and I read it this week. It was about a French colonial education administrator in Tunisia. He did a great job untangling some of the complexities of colonial rule using some recent racial theory. He also passed on another goldmine of a book: Darcie Fontaine’s Decolonizing Christianity: Religion at the End of Empire in France and Algeria (Cambridge UP, 2016).

Finally, this afternoon I watched a French film by David Oelhoffens (starring Viggo Mortensen who speaks both excellent French and Algerian Arabic!), Far from Men, which won three awards at the 2014 Venice Film Festival. It was set in the beginning of the Algerian war (1954) and is loosely based on Albert Camus’ short story, “The Host.” It was an excellent portrayal of the dilemmas of war and human friendship across cultural and religious boundaries.

But none of this makes sense without at least a bare-bone knowledge of the history of French colonialism in Algeria. The story begins in 1830 when the French invaded Algeria under the pretext of destroying the Barbary pirates who over decades had enslaved thousands of Europeans (and some Americans along the way, see my blog on this) and their nominal overlords, the Ottomans. Because this campaign started under the weak ruler Charles X, it was couched in lofty religious language, “crusading” even.

Yet within the interior of the country, the Algerians offered fierce resistance, which the French in turn stamped out with resolve and cruelty over two decades. French settlers were immediately brought in, who were followed in time by Spaniards, Italians, and Maltese. Much of the northern lands were quite fertile and the settlers took over the best parts. Then in 1848, under the Second Empire, France annexed the three northern provinces. But even if this wealthiest part of the land was now “France,” Algerian Muslims could not be French citizens and therefore had no political rights. It was apartheid on steroids, as I like to put it.

So by the 1940s, at least six generations later, you had over 800,000 colonists and about ten million Algerian Muslims. It was not hard to predict that the situation would explode, especially after World War II when so many other colonial nations were achieving their independence. Keep in mind too the brutality with which the French stamped out the Algerian uprising and the continual warfare that the Algerian nationalists managed to keep up between 1954 and 1962.

Yes, torture and atrocities were committed by both sides, but if you take into account the huge discrepancy between war casualties (somewhere between 30,000 French deaths and 700,000 Algerian deaths), you see that the ragtag Algerian fighters were no match for a world class army arrayed against them. There is no doubt that the French committed war crimes, most notably when they wiped out whole villages in acts of reprisal. In the end, that is what created the most international pressure for them to come to the negotiating table. And though the colonial terrorist organization (the OAS) killed many Algerians as well as fellow Frenchmen both in France and Algeria, victims of Algerian infighting numbered in the tens of thousands and post-war revenge killings likely surpassed 100,000.

This was not the Babylonians sweeping into sixth-century BCE Judah as in the beginning of this blog, but it certainly follows the same pattern. Then the civil war of the 1990s produced another 200,000 victims, most of which were civilians. There is so much to lament in this one nation’s history.

So how did Christian leaders react to all of this? Were they simply churning out religious rhetoric in support of the colonial rulers’ policies and the colonial ideology of the French state? Or did they voice any opposition to it in the name of the gospel?

There was certainly plenty of the former, though not in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church (Protestants were very few in Algeria). Many of the colonists held on to a very conservative Catholic ideology and were primarily motivated by a “defense of Christian civilization.” But there were plenty of “progressive” voices too at all levels in the latter category, as Darcie Fontaine amply documents in her first chapter. Then in 1947 the pope sent Léon-Etienne Duval from the Haute-Savoie region of France (the Alps south of Geneva, Switzerland) as the new bishop of Constantine and Hippo (St. Augustine’s original bishopric). In Fontaine’s words,


[Duval] “became the symbol of the Catholic Church during the Algerian War. His mythic status derived from his public statements against the use of torture and other forms of what he called “injustice”; his vocal and tangible support of peace and reconciliation among the Algerian population, especially across religious lines; and his eventual words and actions at Algerian independence” (62).


Cardinal Duval’s convictions before Algeria

The book photographed above came out in 1984. My copy was a gift from a priest in his administration. A couple of years before, a well-known French journalist, Marie-Christine Ray, interviewed Cardinal Duval over several months and the book reports those conversations. Le Centurion is one of France’s oldest and most popular publishers and I’m guessing it sold over a million copies, only because the Algerian War remains a gaping wound in the French psyche. The Vietnam War was traumatic for Americans on many levels, but it was in a land far away. In France’s case, close to a million “pieds noirs” returned to France fearing for their safety after independence. France has yet to heal from this trauma and process it in a healthy way.

I have to interject a personal note here. I grew up in the Paris suburbs and remember as a child being fascinated and troubled by gory pictures of bombings in France or Algeria in the popular weekly magazine Paris Match which came to our home. In France alone several thousand people were killed in terror attacks during this period either by the FLN or the OAS. Still in elementary school I would read a good part of those articles. Little did I know I would be living there nine years.

Now back to the Cardinal. From a young age Léon Etienne Duval knew God was calling him into the priesthood. At eighteen his bishop in Annecy sent him to do theological studies in Rome, where he came out with a specialty in philosophy. After briefly serving as parish priest he taught from 1930 to 1938 in the Catholic seminary at Annecy. Then he was named as the bishop’s top administrator as the war seemed imminent. This put him in touch with lots of Catholic social activists who by 1940 were organizing discussion groups about how to push back against the Vichy government, resist German forced labor, and manage the hiding and care of Jewish children pouring in from Germany and Switzerland. Then Duval reflects on how crucial this emphasis of mobilizing lay people for this work turned out to be:


“By inviting the laity to deepen their faith and review their lives in the light of the gospel, chaplains and lay leaders were admirably preparing them to exercise their own responsibility and to act ‘politically,’ in the best sense of this word, that is, in the service of the community’s common good. The events that followed largely bore this out. I often came to realize that to erect a wall between the political and the religious spheres is just as harmful for politics as it is for the Church. I fondly and vividly remember this time spent with those activists. I saw the Holy Spirit moving in the conscience of most members of that diocese” (38).


His bishop had clearly led the way by visibly supporting the Resistance and making sure no Catholic would be tempted by the ideology of Nazi Germany. This applied to the Vichy government as well. Duval himself states how he quickly he came to realize how nefarious their policies were. He knew people who joined the Resistance and those who chose not to. But his concern was “to lead Christians to rise above partisan views and to take a stand for justice and solidarity between all French people” (39).

It is not surprising, then, that before the pope sent him to Algeria as bishop he had already come to his own conclusion with regard to the French colonial project in Algeria. Here’s how he puts it:


“I recall that one day at the seminary where I was teaching we were having a conversation as colleagues and I had come to the conclusion that the Second World War had shaken the nations so deeply that it must mark the end of the colonial empires. By what means and in what form this change would take place, I was far from guessing. But I thought it inevitable.”


I will begin the second half of this blog with the Cardinal’s role during the war.