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St. Elizabeth of Schoenau
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Marist Bulletin - Number 267


A Catalonian Marist Brother in the heart of Algeria

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While cayucos full of persons seeking horizons of hope and well-being arrive on the coasts of Spain or Italy from Africa, a few Europeans are going in the opposite direction to immerse themselves in African realities and to live beside its people. These are not occasional tourists participating in a safari, but people who want to share the life and work with the local people of the countries where they go. Beyond the culture and customs, they find a profound reason and a universal language that allows them to communicate and to love the people whom they welcome. This is the case of Brother Josep María Rius.
He was born in 1952 at Miralcamp, in the region of Pla dUrgell, at Lleida (Spain). As a student of the Marists, he discovered the charism of Marcellin Champagnat and he felt called to live this vocation of service to children and young people through the fraternity. He was a teacher and studied Pastoral Theology in Rome. He worked as a teacher of Religion, a youth minister and as a director of the Marist College at Valldemia de Mataró. His penchants are music, sport, discussing with young people… He has done courses on deep, personal interiorisation through silence and the body. Since 2002 he has lived in Algeria. In this country, there were in 1903 a total of seventeen Marist colleges who had to close due to the famous French law of this year.

After a time of holidays in Catalonia, why return to Mostaganem?
I now find myself apart here. Now that I am immersed with the Algerian people, I want to continue my work of welcoming the sub-Saharan students and work in the realities of the diocese of Oran. I live at Mostaganem, capital of an agricultural province, with some 150,000 inhabitants. It is a seaport and a very traditional city. The population is very simple and welcoming.

What is the Christian presence in this city?
The only Christians are the three brothers and about fifteen sub Saharans who form a parish. There is no priest, but a priest from Oran comes twice a week. Each Sunday we go to Oran, eighty kilometres away, to be with and celebrate the faith with the diocesan community. We have freedom of worship but we cannot invite anybody to become a Christian.

What meaning do you find then in your presence in this context?
The work of the Church in Algeria involves the sharing of life with the Algerians and working for their human and social promotion. The Church uses such measures as: libraries, formation courses for women and collaboration with associations for the handicapped and solidarity activities.

How are you seen by the Muslim inhabitants of Mostaganem?
All the inhabitants of the city are Muslim. It is surprising that when the majority aspire to go to Europe, we decide to live like them. They are happy with our presence and they show us this in many different ways.

Do they question you in any way about the Christian faith?
The first thing that attracts their attention is that we are three men, single, living together and that we take on the work of housecleaning which is, for their culture, a woman’s work. They ask us if we pray and how we do so. The subject of God comes up naturally in conversations. The subject of Christian forgiveness remains incomprehensible to their mentality since for them, nothing must replace punishment or vengeance.

There are no other Algerian Catholics?
None at Mostaganem. A conversion to Christianity would provoke a backlash in the familial and social environment.

What is your relationship with women?
We must respect the social norms of the country. For example, a man cannot enter a friend’s house if his wife is alone. In a group there is no problem. In our house, groups of students have come to question us about Christianity or about what we do. Dialoguing with a woman alone is not seen well. The young girls are just like the ones here, but they have very few occasions to leave the houses, particularly those who are married.

Is there ay situation that makes them revolt or be indignant?
The country is very rich at the macro-economic level, but the greatest part of the families live with a lot of austerity because salaries are low and there is a lot of unemployment. The maintenance of the public good, the cleanliness of the city, could be improved.

How do you see the Muslim religion in your environment?
The practice is diverse, but not monolithic as is generally thought in Europe. The larger part lives a popular, simple and traditional Islam. It’s true that there are a few more radical groups but they are in the minority. There also exists the practice of Sufi confraternities, of which you need to be aware. In this sense, we have a close relationship with the confraternity, in Arabic zaouïa, which is founded on dialogue, on collaboration for solidarity actions, on help for prayer.

Yes, but in 1994, Henri Vergès was murdered, a Marist Brother from France, because he was a religious…
It is true. At the same time they murdered eighteen religious in all the country. It was a general movement that carried away with it also people of culture, some Imams…. Algerians without any justification. During these years of terrorism, in the nineties, the Church took the option of staying here and being in solidarity with the suffering of the Algerian people. Henri Vergès continued to work in the library of the Casbah of Algiers for the young people of the old district who had no place at home to study, nor means of buying books. For us, he became an example and a testimony to incarnation and sharing with the Algerian people.

What does the Marist presence consist of?
We are a community of three brothers, two Catalonians and one Mexican, responsible for the parish, that is to say the accompaniment of the young sub-Saharan students. Another work is the collaboration with the diocese of Oran, lacking a lot of personnel and with aged persons. Personally, each brother tries to find a work to contribute to the common expenses. In my case, I give courses in Spanish at the Cervantès Institute here in Mostaganem. It’s a way of making contact with the Algerians. At the house, we have started remedial teaching and we have started a few introductory courses in computing. Our project consists of working with the children and young people of the district outside of school time in their free time. For that we need time to spend with the young Algerians. The fact that our community is formed by religious and foreigners makes it easy for us to welcome a few Algerians in our house to speak about religion, work or personal problems.

What language do you speak?
Basically in French with the adults and in Algerian Arabic with the children.

Is it difficult to learn Arabic?
You need a lot of time and patience with the added difficulty that the spoken language is different from the official language, classical or literary Arabic. This is not only for us, but also for the Algerians. Primary and secondary education is done in Arabic, but the technical courses, such as medicine, are given in French.

Don’t you have times of solitude? What role does God play in your life?
In the context already described, community and personal prayer becomes an indispensable element for giving meaning to my life. Besides, the life of fraternity, simple and enthusiastic as it is, contributes to that. Community discernment, realised in an on-going way, helps me to overcome the daily difficulties.

How do you see the situation of our country, concretely the presence of Muslims in Catalonia?
It is totally different from the relationship with the Muslims in Algeria where you see them in their own country; in Catalonia they have come in search of possibilities. Being outside of their country, they tighten the bonds between them more to protect them from an environment that, according to their traditions, is hostile to Islam. You need to approach them without any hang-ups to encourage their integration from the mutual awareness between persons of their own district and not with grandiloquent declarations. You can see that the young girls, who do not wear the headscarf in their country, feel obliged to wear it here when they arrive through the demands of the Imam or of the social environment. It is a complex subject.

You have already spent four years in Algeria. Have you fixed the date for your return?
No. An option like that does not have a determined date. I feel very happy there and I hope to stay there many more years.

Brother Lluís Serra i Llansana

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