Tunisia: A Land of Saints and Dialogue

Saint Louis cathedral built by Cardinal Lavigerie in 1890

Author: Donatien Mpawenayo

I, Donatien will never stop speaking about Tunisia. A country now known as a place where our main apostolate that consists of dialogue and encounter with Muslims. This land however was a place where great saints, such as saint Cyprian, saint Felicitus, saint Perpetua, and great Theologians like Tertullian lived. Is Tunisia still having something that would attract us as missionaries to really want to be there?
Unlike Algeria which is the largest country of the geographical region known as Maghreb, (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya). Tunisia is the least known and the smallest among them. Not only is Tunisia the smallest country in the Maghreb, it is the least known of all. When I was sent to Maghreb for stage (pastoral), my spirit and thoughts went straight to Algeria. Tunisia was “the big unknown”. It came as a surprise when I was told that Tunisia was my destination. I started wondering where Tunisia was and what it looked like to be in Tunisia. Guess what? Even in the “Relais Maghreb” a News Letter from the Province was having many information from Algeria. Tunisia did have something but not enough to satisfy the thirst of a new comer who was in Kasama (Zambia). The truth is that, very few writings concerning Tunisia are found easily in different News Letters of the Society. I therefore wish to bring to your awareness the richness that is hidden in this great, yet “unknown” country called Tunisia.

Tunisia in the History
Tunisia has Tunis as its capital city. This capital is located in the Northern part of the country. A part of the city is located on the sea shore of the Mediterranean sea. Tunis will not be appealing to many. But if I mention Carthage, this would easily arouse the curiosity of the one who wants to know. Yes, Carthage, that known city both in the Church and in the secular history is located in present day Tunisia. Given the expansion of the city, Carthage is slowly merging with Tunis to look like they are one big city. Carthage is that city where came the great army officer of the history, Hannibal, who almost conquered Rome. Another beautiful part of the story is that Hannibal managed to cross the Pyrenees mountains with elephants! Unbelievable, isn’t it?

Two well-known African lady saints, Perpetua and Felicitus, both gave their lives for the witness of their faith and were brutally murdered in a kind of stadium of their time: the cirque. Traces of this magnificent roman building are still found today, thanks to the work of Father Delattre, a Missionary of Africa, to whom Cardinal Lavigerie gave the task of finding out that beautiful history of Christianity in Tunisia.
When it comes to Islamic religion, Tunisia was the first place where there was the establishment of a very big university, Zitouna, from where came great Islamic scholars.
In the recent History, Tunisia, though not spoken about very loudly, is where the Revolutionary movements that took Mohamar Ghadaffi, Blaise Compaoré, Bahammar president, Moubarak of Egypt, and others, out of their power had its birth. Born by the Tunisia people, and Ben Ali was its first victim.

Tunisia: a land of saints turned into a land of Islam
Tunisia has seen its territory invaded by a number of colonisers, the last one having stayed from the 8th century until today. First of all, the Phoenician sailors came in and founded Carthage. Then, the Romans took over the land founding so many cities and equipping Tunisia with a water system still in use up to today though modernised. The Romans helped the country to be a land of Christianity when they themselves became Christians, hence the great figures of the catholic church history are the sons and daughters of this land: Tertullian and Cyprian. Romans were removed by vandals who are the tribes that came from northern Europe who brought an end to the many centuries of roman rule in the Mediterranean world. Even though the Vandals confessed Christian faith, they did not have the orthodox doctrine, since they were arianists, which led to a lot of confusions during their rule.

Then came the Islamic wave that took over from the vandals. Muslim rulers have been in Tunisia for around 13 centuries so far. They entered so deeply into the Tunisian culture that a number of people do not know that there is a whole a long History before the Arabs invaded Tunisia. The 19th century colonisation did not spare Tunisia. English, then French colonised Tunisia, French being those who lasted more longer. This colonisation did not do much to revive the Christian heritage that used to be there. Islamic culture and religion has really taken deep root that one needs much more of understanding, patience, and courage to let people realise that they are much more, than being simply Muslim. This made this land that bore such great saints to somehow be alienated from Christian faith.

In The line of the Missionaries of Africa
The society of the Missionaries of Africa has a strong connection with this part of Africa, as the Congregation was founded in Algeria. Tunisia comes into the picture some years later, but it will play a great role so much that we still have a number of Missionaries of Africa who lived in Carthage especially during their scholastic formation. Cardinal Lavigerie, having been a professor of History of the Church, knew what it meant to be in North Africa. He was granted the duty to be the prelate over all Africa. He then took the chance to rebuild the church in a place where once Cyprian and Tertullian once preached the Word of God. He actually put the Cathedral on the same hill where the roman governor’s castle was. Around the same hill, one can still see a number of Churches and Christian heritage that used to be there. We find the place where saint Augustine defended the doctrine of the Church against the Donatists.

The magnificence of these buildings is still seen in their ruins. The first missionary work has been done either in Algeria or Tunisia. One of the great works was the unfolding the treasure of the Christian history done by Father Delattre. This was the order that Cardinal Lavigerie gave to him. Many sites that are known till today have been discovered by the first fathers who went to work in Tunisia. The female education that the Tunisians are proud of is the great work of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa. Lavigerie liked the place so much that he even established a home that would host the Pope if at all he was attacked as there were pending threats to attack him. Lavigerie himself moved his episcopate see to Carthage and ended his days there. He was buried there until the independence of Tunisia when his remains were sent to Rome to be reposed in the Generalate of the Missionaries of Africa.

The Mission in Tunisia
From my experience of stage, Maghreb, especially Tunisia is a place where one is very happy to be and to do the missionary activity of announcing the Good News of Salvation. The way it is done is surely different from other places where the missionaries are sent. Muslims are people who have faith. They have heard of Christians but sometimes they do have a negative image of who the Christians are, since a lot of emphasis being put on the crusades.

To be in Maghreb, especially in Tunisia, was to be a living witness. The first thing one does is not to proclaim. One first lives his or her faith and upon being seen then the questions will surely come and the chance, to proclaim what one lives and the faith He has in Jesus Christ. Above all, the loving relationship without discrimination is a strong message that the Christians living among the Muslims have to offer. The means we use to allow them to come into contact with us are the libraries, the schools, the hospitals, different associations of human relief. This is to reduce the suspicion of the authorities who are ready to accuse us of any proselytism. There are a number of Christians from other parts of the world, be it other countries of the continent or from Europe or America or Asia that need the sacramental life. Hence the sacramental life is still being lived in Maghreb.

So, what I would say last is that, Tunisia is a place where one gets blessed with being on the same grounds where the great African saints lived and witnessed their faith. Who would not like to imitate these servants of the Lord? They gave their lives to God and many of them ended up in Martyrdom. Aren’t we still in the same line where Cardinal Lavigerie would write to the letters of those who came to join the new society: Visa for Martyrdom! Come and see the mission in Maghreb and you will be happily surprised to see how the Lord is still animating that Land that saw a lot of the blood of His faithful shed.

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1 Response to Tunisia: A Land of Saints and Dialogue

  1. Dashe Henry says:

    It is a very enriching explanation especially bringing to mind the courage and effort of those who have gone before us and to remind ourselves of the task ahead. God bless the Missionaries of Africa,
    God bless Africa,
    God bless the whole world. Amen.

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