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Testimony in the Casbah



Henri VERGÈS, Marist Brother in Algiers and martyr in his mission with young people

09/05/2007: Algeria

Dear friends,
We are, in Algiers, very happy that your “Henri Vergès” Fraternity of Nîmes has taken the initiative of organising to pay homage to our Brother Henri on the 12th and 13th May and that you will do this in the monastery of our Clarisse Sisters of Algiers in Nîmes.
I will try to have us represented at this meeting by one of us, if this is possible, but I cannot be present myself as at this time we are preparing for a priestly ordination in Algiers, that of Deacon Raphaël Aussedat, which will take place that same week.

Brother Henri VERGÈS was, with Sister Paule-Hélène, not only the first of the nineteen religious from our community to be victim of the fundamentalist violence in Algeria, but he was above all the particularly faithful witness to an evangelical and Marist relationship with Algeria and the Algerians.

I was very close to him during his entire Algerian journey. In effect, at the time of his arrival in Algeria, I was giving some training in Arabic to Algerian teachers of the diocesan schools, precisely in the premises of the Saint Bonaventure school where Henri VERGÈS worked in the seventies.
After his departure for Sour el Ghozlane, I went to see him regularly when I returned from Oran to Algiers, as coadjutor archbishop, from 1980. It was with him that I reflected on the Marist commitment to the senior students’ library of Ben Cheneb. It was firstly Brother Jesus who opened this Marist presence in the Casbah of Algiers, and the following year Henri VERGÈS himself would join it. For two years, I met him regularly to finalise this project.
Just before leaving for the African Synod in April 1994, I went to the library of Ben Cheneb to see how the situation of this service was evolving, then frequented by more than eleven hundred senior school students. They had told me that the readers frequenting the library took more than 95% of the books that they borrowed in Arabic and that, as a consequence, the work done by Henri, Paule-Hélène and their team was well in line with the orientations of the Algerian National Education System who had just arabised all the teaching.

I was thus able to measure personally the courage of the life commitment of Henri Vergès to Sour el Ghozlane and to Ben Cheneb. We were all witnesses to his life of prayer, in particular when we joined him for Mass or the office in the very beautiful little chapel of Arabic style in the house of Ben Cheneb. With the Ribât and the monks of Tibhirine, he was in search of an Islamic-Christian spiritual solidarity. Each instant of his days was consecrated to God and to young people, according to his Marist vocation. He often went to Our Lady of Africa to offer these young people to God through Mary.

It was the quality of this testimony lived in this working class district of the Casbah that was evident to those who killed him. They killed Paule-Hélène at the same time. They had both accepted this risk, as each one of us did in the district where we lived. Thus, finally, he gave his life in fidelity to the young people to whom the Church and his Congregation had sent him.

The Imam of the neighbouring mausoleum of Sidi Abderrahmane At-Thaalibi, the patron of Algiers, paid him and Sister Paule-Hélène homage the day following his death on France 2. This Imam himself would be murdered two weeks later. The Spanish Augustinian Sisters who formed the closest community to Ben Cheneb would also be murdered, six months later, when they knocked at the door of the chapel of the district where Henri VERGÈS had gone each week for Sunday Mass, to the feet of Our Lady of Africa.

Henri remains for us a sign of daily fidelity to the mission received, in the detail of his daily work and in his spiritual search, as in the gift of his life.

Archbishop of Algiers

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