Why Africa’s Largest Diocese Has Only 12 Priests, All Non-native

Bishop John MacWilliams, of Algeria's Diocese of Laghouat

At slightly over 2 million square kilometers, the Diocese of Laghouat, located in the Southern part of Algeria, is the largest diocese 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.

But despite this vastness, and a population of about four and a half million people, Christians in Algeria account for a small percentage while a majority are Muslims. In  fact, statistics indicate that Islam is the official religion in Algeria with 99.7 percent of the population subscribing to the religion.

The diocese has only 12 priests who, according to Bishop John MacWilliams, the shepherd of the diocese since 2017, are all missionaries.

“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,” says Bishop MacWilliams, adding that all the missionaries serving in the diocese are drawn from 20 different countries and none is a native of Algeria.

He adds, “Most of them (missionaries) 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.”

He says that all the missionaries serving in the Diocese of Laghouat are drawn from 20 different countries and none is a native of Algeria.

In the Diocese of Laghouat, the missionaries run a number of projects that impact locals, regardless of their religious affiliations. This, according to the Bishop, is what has kept the Christians to live in harmony with Muslims.

“We have five communities of sisters whose main activity is a project supported by Caritas and other organizations who support us to help the parents of handicapped children how to care for their children,” he says and adds, “The children and the parents are all Muslims. There are no Christian families in the diocese at all. The children who are handicapped, who come to the sisters or the sisters go to their houses are Muslim.”

And it isn’t just the missionaries who are drawn from outside countries. According to the Bishop, a huge chunk of Catholics in Algeria consists 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.

“We've had a few students from sub-Saharan Africa,” the Bishop who is a member of Missionaries of Africa says, adding, “In the north of the country they are many, hundreds, but we have just very few in the south from many countries in Africa studying at universities in Algeria.”

According to the English Prelate, the Church in the Regional Episcopal Conferences of North Africa (CERNA) – Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Algeria – is made of these students from other countries.

Bishop MacWilliams, formerly an officer of the Queen’s Regiment in the British Army, divulges that a small number of natives in Algeria has converted to Catholicism, but these converts have to practice their new-found faith in secrecy.

“There are also a very small number of Algerians who have become Christians. Some of them have to keep it a bit quiet because their families wouldn't approve of the change, but they felt called by Jesus to be Christian and so they exercise their freedom. But it's not always easy for them to make that change. So, there is a small number in our diocese,” the Missionary of Africa Prelate says.

The other section of Catholics in Algeria, according to the former army official, are foreign workers coming from Europe, America and the Philippines to work in the oil fields and petrol companies in the country, which has one of the largest oil reservoirs in the world.

Other Christians in Algeria are women married to Muslims in the country and have little contact with the Church, according to the Shepherd of the Church in the southern part of Algeria.

Though the authorities in Algeria allow the Church a good deal of freedom, there are restrictions, the former military man explains.

“We are not allowed to say Mass outside the churches and chapels which are recognized as such. We can't go into a university with the Christian students and say mass there; it's not authorized,” he says and adds, “But we have plenty of churches generally where we are. There's always a place of worship for us. And so, we make the most of that.”

Then there are migrants, who the Bishop says endure harsh conditions as they travel through from the South, through the Sahara Desert, before they make their way into Algeria.

“Everybody hears about the Mediterranean as the graveyard of the migrants that so many or so sadly drowned, trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. But in fact, even more probably lose their lives crossing the Sahara, coming into Algeria from the south, especially to the bordering countries,” Bishop MacWilliams says.

The migrants coming from Mali, Burkina Faso, Libya and from other countries in West Africa travel to Algeria to work and to beg.

They try to get to Europe through Algeria and Morocco.

“It’s a very harsh life and we try to discourage them,” says the 71-year-old Prelate, adding, “I try to encourage my brother Bishops from the countries where they come from to tell them (migrants) not to set off because very, very few succeed and so many lose their lives. Some of them in countries like Libya at the moment become slaves.”

According to the Missionary of Africa Prelate who has been ministering as Bishop in the North African country since May 2017, many of the migrants find themselves in prison for crimes they have not committed.

Additionally, the society in North Africa is not always very welcoming to people from sub-Saharan Africa.

“There is a certain racism among some elements of the society as a whole. And that can sometimes be an added difficulty for our mission coming from Africa,” he says, adding that there are about 100 prisoners spread in different prisons within the Diocese of Laghouat.

He adds, “They (migrants) tend to avoid the authorities because they might be asked for their papers and be arrested and deported and they don't want to be deported from the country. It is a bit difficult when we organize reunions or diocesan assembly every year. They can't come because they haven't got papers to travel.”

Hinting on the challenge of finding a spouse in Algeria where Christians are few and scattered, the Catholic minister says, “Marriage is a big challenge as finding somebody of your religion is a huge task when you are just one or two in the country.”

Additionally, Clerics in the North-African countries, according to the Bishop, have no authority to speak on issues affecting the society since Christians are a minority group.

“Where the Church is established, it becomes part of the society. So the Church in a country like Kenya or in the Democratic Republic of Congo is in a position to actually speak out on public matters, on matters of ethics, even political matters and matters of justice and peace, ecology,” he says, adding, “In North Africa, it's not for us to speak out concerning such issues.”

“We have to keep quiet. We are very vulnerable. If we speak out as foreigners, well, they will simply ask us to leave the country and they have the Church with no pastors, which is not something we want, "Bishop McWilliams who ordained a priest in July 1992 says and adds, "So sometimes we are accused of being too quiet, too cautious, too prudent.”

Further explaining the coexistence between Muslims and Christians, Bishop MacWilliams says, “I've known African migrants being helped by Algerian Muslims. If they're hungry, they would be helped. And I've seen migrants in the hospitals who have been injured or wounded. They were helped by Muslims.”

The Missionary of Africa since his profession in December 1991 adds, “I never heard of any attempt by any of our missionaries to try to convert or turn the children away from their religion. They are Muslims. Conversion is simply helping them to live their lives well in the religion and in their beliefs, whatever it is, the Muslim children remain Muslims. And there's never been any accusation that I've known that the fathers or the sisters who have been there for 150 years have tried to turn the children into Christians.”

Commenting on countries experiencing religious tensions, Bishop MacWilliams says, “I think the ones who attack other people are misguided. They don't even know what their own religion is, really. They have a wrong version. And I think we should welcome them into our hearts.”

He adds, “Instead of splitting into two camps and saying it's us and them, I think we need to say it's all of us together trying to hold hands with each other and be brothers and sisters. And you can't repay hatred with hatred. If you're a Christian, you can only return hatred with love. And that's one of the joys of Christ's life in us that we can share with them."

While other regional Bishops’ conferences in Africa have dozens of dioceses (AMECEA with 122 dioceses spread across eight conferences in nine countries, RECOWA with 154 dioceses spread across 11 conferences in 16 countries), the region of CERNA has only nine dioceses spread across the four countries – two dioceses in Morocco, one diocese in Tunisia, two dioceses in Libya, and four dioceses in Algeria. The four countries are shepherded by seven Bishops, with two dioceses being vacant.

This story was first published by ACI Africa on 12 March 2020


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ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.

Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa
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