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Algeria

Christianity In Muslim World: Notre Dame D'Afrique Basilica Reopens

Algeria's Our Lady of Africa was long associated with French colonialism, until it became a symbol of interfaith tolerance

ALGIERS - Algerians call it "Madame Afrique," an imposing cathedral that has symbolized both the evils of colonialism and the possibilities of tolerance and brotherhood. Now, the Our Lady of Africa (Notre Dame d'Afrique) basilica offers a sign of renewal of its own, having been reconsecrated on December 13 after an extensive, three-year restoration effort.

The majestic Roman Catholic cathedral, built in the mid-19th century overlooking the Bay of Algiers, was long seen by Algerians as a reminder of the French conquest of their country. French-born Cardinal Charles Martial Allemand Lavigerie, the Archbishop of Carthage and Algiers and primate of Africa in the late 1800s, had once proclaimed that Notre Dame d'Afrique was proof of "the victory of the cross over the crescent."

Our Lady of Africa was the vision of Monsignor Louis-Antoine Pavy, who served as Bishop of Algiers from 1846 to 1866. Pavy was said to want a shrine that could stand alongside the Fourviere cathedral in Lyon, and commissioned it in a style inspired by Roman, Byzantine and Mozarabic influences.

Over time, and with the departure of the colonial regime and the promotion of interfaith dialogue, the basilica came to be viewed as a place of tolerance and brotherhood. Even during the years of Islamist terror in the 1990s when 18 Catholic priests were murdered, the church, nestled in the heart of a poor Muslim neighborhood, was not targeted. In more recent years, some 100,000 visitors, including many Muslims, would come annually to see the architectural and religious landmark, which has written on the colorful tiled apse: "Pray for us and the Muslims."

The church suffered major damage in the earthquake that struck Boumerdes in 2003. The restoration project first outlined in 2003 by then-Algiers Archbishop Henri Tessier, came at a price tag of some 5 million euros, with contributions from the Paca regional government, the municipal government of Bouches-du-Rhone, the City of Marseille, the Algerian and French governments, as well as several individual patrons and donations collected by current Algiers Archbishop Ghaleb Bader.

The prefecture of Algiers assigned the project to a company in the French city of Avignon, which agreed to train 28 young Algerians in restoration practices. The job required not only a face-lift to the classical monument, but extensive reinforcement to guard against future earthquakes. The steeples and bell tower were dismantled, stone-by-stone, and reassembled with new stainless steel frames. The brick arches of the nave, the dome and the apse have all been strengthened using strips of carbon.

The basilica now has 46 windows, which were installed by the 19th century master glassmaker Guilbert Auel, from Avignon. After being hit by a bomb on April 16, 1943, the windows were once again restored to their full beauty. This time, though, restoration artists had to import the glass from the masters of Marseille, and bring them back to Algeria.

At the ceremony reopening the cathedral, French and Algerian politicians gathered to marvel at what one called "an exceptional human construction."

Monsignor Bader called the restoration project a "symbol of cooperation between Algeria and French, between the north and south shores of the Mediterranean. With the Algerian Minister for Religious Affairs looking on, Bader called for "a fraternal Algeria, rich in its diversity."

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