Not Much Change for Algeria’s Church amid COVID-19

Bishop John MacWilliams of Algeria's Laghouat Diocese

In a country where the faithful go for months without celebrating Holy Mass due to a shortage of Priests, the Church in Algeria is experiencing very little disruption owing to the spread of COVID-19 that has forced worshippers in many parts of the world to miss Mass.

In an interview with ACI Africa Wednesday, April 1, Bishop John MacWilliams of Algeria's Laghouat Diocese said that many Church communities within the diocese, located in the southern part of the North African country, were used to conducting prayer services in the absence of a priest.

“In most of the places where we have communities there is no priest, so the sisters and brothers pray in a non-sacramental way, though some of them now find more time for on-line retreats, spiritual reading and other non-contact ways of following Christ,” said Bishop MacWilliams.

He added, “For some of them (church members), that is almost life as normal, since they only have Mass about twice a month in normal times.”

In an interview with ACI Africa in February, the Bishop said that the Diocese of Laghouat has only 12 priests serving a huge chunk of the Southern part of Algeria. 


At slightly over 2 million square kilometers, the diocese is the largest in Africa and arguably one of the largest dioceses in the world, only rivalled by the Catholic Diocese of Irkutsk in Russia, which measures 9.96 million square kilometers.

“We have about 50 missionaries, 12 priests and a small number of brothers and then the rest are religious sisters living in different religious communities with one or two individuals,” Bishop MacWilliams, a member of the Society of the Missionaries of Africa told ACI Africa in the February interview, adding that all the missionaries serving in the diocese are drawn from 20 different countries and none is a native of Algeria.

Most of the missionaries in his diocese, the 71-year-old Bishop disclosed, “are from congregations such as the Missionaries of Africa, Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa, Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, and the Little Sisters and Little Brothers of Jesus.”

According to Bishop MacWilliams who has been a Bishop since May 2017, a majority of Catholics in Algeria consist of either students coming to study in universities in the North African country or immigrants either looking for employment or fleeing from violence in their home countries.

He says that compared to the north of Algeria which has been hit the hardest with most of the cases of COVID-19 (716 cases on April 1), cases in the south of Algeria are just over a dozen.

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“In the south where I am there are a total of just 14 cases in six of the eleven departments, but the figure could well rise in the future,” says Bishop MacWilliams.

In an attempt to contain the spread of the virus, the country’s administration has ordered a midnight curfew in some places and a total lockdown in others, causing a disruption of the Church apostolate in the country, according to the English Prelate.

“In eleven of the forty-eight departments there is an overnight curfew and in one department, a total lockdown,” he says.

Hinting on the general situation in Algeria, as the country implements measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, Bishop MacWilliams says, “People are asked to stay at home as much as possible, and take all the necessary precautions such as social distancing, hand-washing. All schools and universities are closed and there is no public transport. Most shops are shut and even the food-markets are limited to essentials and service at the door rather than entering.”

He adds, “As far as the Church is concerned, all our caritative activities with schoolchildren and handicapped children as well as our libraries have had to stop and our fifty or so missionaries are applying the rules according to where they are.”


While activities such as making aids for the handicapped children can be done at home, the Bishop says that other outreach activities have been immensely affected owing to the existing difficulties in physical contact.

The English Prelate foresees a situation where “Holy week will be much more low-key than usual.”

He adds, “It is the presence of Christ that is most important, even if that cannot be celebrated liturgically as we would like.”

It is not just the Church in Algeria that has been affected in the country where Christians have been living with Muslims peacefully for centuries. Statistics indicate that Islam is the official religion in Algeria with 99.7 percent of the population subscribing to the religion while Christians account for only a small percent of the total Algerian population.

“Our neighbours, all Muslims, are living the same thing as us and have to pray at home rather than together in the mosques,” observes Bishop MacWilliams.

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In four weeks’ time, Muslims will begin the holy month of Ramadhan which the Bishop says “will be far less joyful for them than normal since their evening Iftar gatherings will be impossible after their day of fasting. We will be with them through our prayers and our support in so far as possible.”

Agnes Aineah is a Kenyan journalist with a background in digital and newspaper reporting. She holds a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism from the Aga Khan University, Graduate School of Media and Communications and a Bachelor's Degree in Linguistics, Media and Communications from Kenya's Moi University. Agnes currently serves as a journalist for ACI Africa.