A country in which Christians are less than 1% of the population, Algeria was the first Muslim country to welcome the spirituality of unity in the mid-1960s. They were difficult years of transition and development in this strategic region. Here, the monks of Tibhirine are universally honoured as an example that transcends religious differences and points to the fraternal relationship that unites all the members of the human race.
“Chiara Lubich had invited us not to stop in the face of the present difficulties,” Rosi Berolasi recalls. She spent 13 years in the focolare in Algiers. “Looking at it through her eyes, the experience we lived was charged with hope. She already saw the life that would later develop.” Rosi goes on to say: “Also the then bishop of Algiers, Cardinal Duval, had always encouraged us and today we are glad to say that there are Muslim men and women who have their own experience as members of the Focolare Movement.”
In Tlemcen the 50th anniversary of the Focolare Movement’s arrival was celebrated last year at the beginning of November. Algeria opened the door to many other countries of North Africa and the Middle East. Archbishop Emeritus of Algiers, Archbishop Tessier, and Bishop of Orano, Bishop Vesco also attended the celebrations, along with Focolare co-president, Jesús Morán and people representing Focolare communities in several regions of the Middle East, inlcuding Syria.
French focolarino, Pierre Le Vaslot, who now lives in Italy, remembered their arrival as if it was yesterday. He spoke at the current Mariapolis Centre which is named after Ulisse Caglioni (March 5, 1943 – September 1, 2003). Ulisse was one of those focolarini that spent their lives giving selfless witness to universal brotherhood ever since they arrived on October 5, 1966 in a Citroën that they had driven all the way from Paris.
Upon their arrival the three focolarini – Pierre, Ulisse and Salvatore Strippoli – found themselves standing in front of the abandoned Benedictine Monastery that needed to be rebuilt. It had been constructed in the 1950s by German Abbot, Dom Walzer, who had been driven out of German for refusing to welcome Hitler at the Abbey of Beuron. The monastery is built against a mountain, at 900 metres and a few steps away from the tomb of Sufi mystic, Sidi Boumedienne, who left a strong spiritual imprint on the local region and beyond. The location is a perfect setting for gathering, hospitality and dialogue. It’s peaceful and serene. An experience of presence and sharing life began at the Dar es Salam centre in Tlemcen with people from the city.
“It was a joy for us in Orano, to see the monastery brought back to life,” says the then young priest Theirry Becker. “But who are these focolarini? Nobody has ever heard of them. They’re neither priests nor monks, yet they live in community. They came to live unity and to make unity come alive in the people around them. I listened to them talk about their ideal, about Chiara Lubich, from whom I began to learn more about the spirituality. They immediately got to work, and Ulisse soon transformed the whole house.” Those were years of constant experiences, such as the contact with Imam Barkat. The focolarini had helped him save his little son, taking him to hospital in the middle of the night and insisting with the doctors. It would be this very Imam and father of the little one, to go to the focolare to give courses on the prophetic Hadiths and offer correct explanations of their spiritual writings.
There were also very moving words from the first young people who were regulars at the focolare in Tlemcen in the 1960s – Mourad, Bouziane and Farouk. Now they are happily married with children of their own, and the new generations are carrying forward the ideal which they were the first to believe in.
Maria Chiara De Lorenzo