“Muslims must first be loved,” Father Raphael Deillon told cath.ch. The White Father, who celebrated the jubilee of 50 years of his missionary commitment on 27 June 2020, lived 25 years in Algeria. A specialist in Islam, he has always defended a culture of encounter and dialogue.
On Saturday 27 June 2020, the Africanum, the headquarters of the Missionaries of Africa in Switzerland, at 57 Route de la Vignettaz in Fribourg, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the “missionary oath” or priestly ordination of three Swiss White Fathers: Fathers Raphaël Deillon and Claude Maillard, as well as Brother Karl Kaelin.
Although born in Saint-Julien-en-Genevois, in Haute-Savoie, Raphaël Deillon is originally from Siviriez, the village of Saint Marguerite Bays. In 2009, he was appointed postulator of the cause of “Goton de la Pierraz”, in order to defend the canonization file that the bishopric of Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg had to submit to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. “They had also chosen me because I was at that time in Rome as assistant to the General Council of the Society of Missionaries of Africa”.
I took a taste of their culture
But the curriculum vitae of Raphaël Deillon, who in his childhood had known peasant life – his father was a cowherd on the estate of the Count of Viry, near Geneva – was to take a singular turn when he met the families of North African workers living near the seminary of Annecy, where he had entered. “They were living in barracks, a poor place where no one dared to go. We were going to visit them, drink with them the mint tea that smelled so good. I got a taste of their culture…”
An advertisement in the newspaper La Croix
At the seminary, everyone went to military service except him, who was Swiss. “I had read an advertisement in the newspaper La Croix: ‘Seeking boarding school teacher for a vocational training centre in Ouargla in the Sahara’. So in 1965, at the age of 22, I left for a year in Ouargla, in the Sahara, 800 km south of Algiers. I was a boarding school teacher in a vocational school, where most of the pupils came from the surrounding oases. I loved the place and the people so much that one day, I will always remember it, I was under a lemon tree and I said to myself: ‘I will come back, there is something good to live between Christians and Muslims. Back at the seminary in Annecy, Raphael was contacted by Fr. Jean-Pierre Sauge, who was in charge of missionary animation for the White Fathers. He will make his novitiate at Gap, in the Hautes-Alpes.
The die was cast: he would commit himself to the Missionaries of Africa, with the intention of returning to Algeria after his ordination to the priesthood at Viry in 1970. He learned Arabic dialect at El Bayadh, a village 400 km south of Oran, by visiting Algerian families, then from 1971, for two years, literary Arabic at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic Studies and Islamology (PISAI) in Rome. Then, also after two years of study, he obtained a degree in English in Strasbourg, before returning for three years to El Bayadh, where he taught English. In 1980, he left for Sanaa, North Yemen, also to teach Shakespeare’s language in an American institute to civil servants who wanted to study abroad. On his return to Lyon, he spent two years there in missionary animation before being appointed English teacher in 1983 in Ghardaïa, 600 km south of Algiers.
In Ghardaïa, during the dark years
Father Deillon was to experience, in the 1990s, the “black decade” of the civil war between the Algerian government and its National Popular Army (ANP), and various armed Islamist groups with Salafist Jihadist tendencies, notably the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS) and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). This bloody episode caused more than 150’000 deaths, mainly Algerian Muslims.
It will be strongly shaken by the assassination, on 27 December 1994, of four colleagues, massacred by armed men in the courtyard of their house in Tizi Ouzou. But comforted by the presence of many Muslim friends at their burial.
Weird Magi’s in arms invite themselves to the Feast of Epiphany
A few days later, on Sunday, January 8, 1995, Feast of the Epiphany, “strange magi in arms visited us in our house in Ghardaïa…” Four unknown men armed with machine guns tried to break down the door, while the religious and his confrere, accompanied by two Beninese friends who had come to Mass, were able to flee through the rooftops, on a withdrawal route prepared in case of attacks. At that time, several men and women religious had already been murdered, and there was strong pressure for all foreigners to leave the country.
During this period, the very small Catholic Church in Algeria counted 19 martyrs, murdered between 1994 and 1996, among them Bishop Pierre Claverie of Oran and the seven monks of Tibhirine. They were recognised as martyrs by Pope Francis on 26 January 2018, leading to their beatification on 8 December of the same year in Algeria.
Raphaël Deillon, who did not want to leave the country during the bloody civil war, willingly took up a sentence of a nun he knew, Sister Odette Prévost: “the first thing in dialogue with Muslims is to love them”. She also said: “Between prudence and the Gospel, I choose the Gospel!” The 63-year-old French nun of the Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Charles de Foucauld was murdered on November 10, 1995 in Algiers.
“In spite of these ‘dark years’, I can say that having spent a quarter of a century in the Sahara, I have realized my dream: that of an Islamic-Christian encounter. I have lived wonderful years of friendship with the teachers, students and families of the students where I taught: Ouargla, El Bayadh, Ghardaïa. At the age of 22, when I was under the lemon tree, I was right: it is possible to dialogue between Christians and Muslims, provided that we respect the other who is different from us, that we do not go into the figure of the Bible and the Koran, that we do not clash over different articles of faith in the one and the other, that we do not generalize from extreme cases, that we know how to appreciate in the other what is good. “And above all, to love him!” (cath.ch/be)