Page last updated at 11:50 GMT, Saturday, 18 December 2010

Christians and Muslims unite in Algiers' cathedral

A man walks past Notre Dame d'Afrique
Jean Eugene Fromageau designed Notre Dame d'Afrique in the 1880s

By Chloe Arnold
BBC, Algiers

This week, Our Lady of Africa cathedral re-opened in the Algerian capital, Algiers, following years of renovations, and for many in the country, the 19th Century building has come to mean much more than a religious symbol.

For a country whose population is more than 99% Muslim, the opening ceremony for Algeria's Roman Catholic cathedral attracted an enormous crowd.

The usually tranquil veranda in front of the church was swarming with cars and people, and traffic snaked back all the way down the hairpin bends that you must climb to reach the cliff on which it stands above the Bay of Algiers.

Notre Dame d'Afrique
The cathedral lay abandoned during Algeria's civil war

For the past five years Notre Dame d'Afrique - Our Lady of Africa - has stood shrouded in scaffolding as workmen carried out restoration work.

The once beautiful building had fallen into disrepair. Its foundations were crumbling and, perhaps saddest of all, the statue of the Virgin Mary that stands above the portico had lost one of her arms.

But this week, the piles of rubble had been cleared, and the cathedral stood resplendent once more, with its white sandstone walls rising to the clouds and the statue of the Virgin Mary stretching both arms out towards the sea.

'Symbol of Algiers'

As cathedrals go, Our Lady of Africa is magnificent.

The French architect who designed it back in the 1880s, Jean Eugene Fromageau, gave it a Moorish touch in a nod to its location in North Africa. He added blue mosaic tiles, even though it was supposed to be a sister to Marseille's Notre Dame de la Garde on the other side of the Mediterranean.

A map of Algeria

So who were all these people flocking to a Catholic church in this largely Islamic country? Many were Muslims, but not all. There were sub-Saharan Africans, some of them students, like my friend Immaculate from Uganda, who is studying medicine at Algiers University.

She enjoys it, she says, but studying in a Muslim country she is not allowed the students to touch dead bodies, so she does not feel she is getting as much practical experience as she should.

There were Christians from the expatriate community here - French, Germans and Italians - and there were descendants of the Pieds Noirs, the French settlers, who worked in the cities and ran farms and vineyards on the fertile strip of land above the Sahara desert that runs from Morocco to Tunisia.

One of these is Denis Gonzales, an elderly gentleman dressed in his Sunday best, his snow-white hair combed neatly over the top of his head.

People in the Notre Dame d'Afrique
The walls are lined with marble tablets, thanking Our Lady for her prayers for a brother, a father, a grandmother - many of them Muslims, not Catholics

As he stepped outside the cathedral for a moment for some air he tells me how he was born and bred in Algeria. "Just like my parents and grandparents before me," he says.

He says he has been coming to Our Lady since before independence in 1962. "It has always stood as a symbol of Algiers," he adds, "not just a symbol of a faith."

Often, he tells me, Muslims come to the church to light candles. "It's a place which has brought greater tolerance among the different communities here," he says, choosing his words carefully.

"It's a place that transcends politics, that lets us live in a society with more justice, more brotherhood."

Stepping inside the cathedral, I understand what he means.

The walls are lined with marble tablets, thanking Our Lady for her prayers for a brother, a father, a grandmother - many of them Muslims, not Catholics.

In some ways, it is a miracle this cathedral can operate in a country with such a troubled recent history.

Algeria is emerging from two decades of violence, what they call here "les annees noirs", or "the black years", when hundreds of thousands of people were killed in fighting between Islamist militants and government forces.

In those dark days, being foreign or practising a different religion could have cost you your life.

Back at the cathedral, the ceremony is ending and the organ begins to play. The congregation spills down the steps and onto the terrace.

Among them is the wali - or governor - of Algiers, the minister for religious affairs and the country's last prime minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem. It is a measure of how the cathedral's re-opening has gone beyond religious boundaries.

In one far corner, where the ground slopes steeply down to the sea, past an old French cemetery and a football stadium, two men are standing smoking cigarettes. They are drivers, waiting for their employers to emerge.

I ask one of them, Mehdi Helelchi - a Muslim, of course - what he makes of the grand re-opening.

"She is very beautiful," he says. "They've done a great job restoring her. We're so proud of her."

As I leave the cathedral, I look up at the original words inscribed in blue and gold above the altar: "Notre Dame d'Afrique priez pour nous et pour les Musulmans" - "Our Lady of Africa, pray for us and for the Muslims."

And then, sitting at a pew at the back of the church, I notice a woman saying a prayer. She is wearing a chador, one of the traditional head coverings for Algerian Muslim women.

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