Apostolic Prefect of Western Sahara: “Foucauld is our inspiration. We are the presence of Christ in the Muslim world”

The feast of Saint Charles Foucauld, who was canonised on 15 May this year is celebrated on 1 December. The French Catholic priest and monk lived among the Tuaregs in the Algerian Sahara until his murder in 1916 and is considered a martyr. In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Father León Dorado, OMI, a Spanish missionary who is the current Apostolic Prefect of Western Sahara, speaks of the importance of the “new” saint and describes the situation faced by the region’s Christians.

ACN: Many Catholics know next to nothing about Western Sahara. Who makes up the Apostolic Prefecture of Western Sahara, for which you have been responsible since June, 2013?

Apostolic Prefect León Dorado: Most of the Christians in Western Sahara are migrants who are crossing Africa to try to reach the Canary Islands or the Iberian Peninsula, or students who stay for three years to get their degree, and then return to their countries. There are some from Asia and Europe, but most Christians are from sub-Saharan Africa: from the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Cameroon, Guinea-Conakry, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and others.

We are a very small church, which is not the same as dead or insignificant. But yes, we are small. Basically, we have only two parishes in Western Sahara.

Western Sahara is an Apostolic Prefecture precisely because it does not meet the requirements to be considered a diocese. Which is also why we don’t have a bishop, I am a prefect. We are in a period of growth, shall we say, although it is a very slow growth. The prefecture is overseen by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. We have two parishes, one in Laayoune, in the north, and the other further south, in the centre, in Dakhla.

missionary in the sahara
Msgr. Mario León Dorado O.M.I.

You say the community is small, but how small exactly?

In Dakhla there are between 40 and 60 Christians, but it varies quite a bit. They are all migrants who most certainly are in the Sahara on their way to the Canaries, in Spain, sometimes by boat. But there is a core that remains, in some cases for years, because in Dakhla you can make money in the fishing industry, in the refrigerating sector. And that is what makes the community, and as a Church we are trying to find our space, to establish a family, because these migrants all live far from their families and from their home churches. We want them to find a home in our Church. We have a welcoming centre for migrants, run by the parish branch of Caritas, which is funded by Caritas Rabat and by our Congregation. So that is us, a small Church, but very, very much alive. And the fact is that it is very rewarding to celebrate the faith and the Eucharist here.

In the parish in the north, in Laayoune, which is the regional capital with a population of around 400,000, we also minister to a small group of migrants, but Laayoune is a point of exit, and does not have an industrial sector, or job opportunities for making money. Therefore, it is difficult to stay for long. Here we have a group of sub-Saharan students who came to get their degrees, but also a small group of workers with the UN, which has had a mission here since 1991. Our Sunday Masses can have between 40 and 50 people. It is a small minority within the larger Muslim society. Our goal, as always, is to establish a family and build up a community.

missionary in the sahara
Holy Mass of Thanksgiving for the Canonization of Charles De Foucauld

What does Foucauld’s canonisation mean to Catholics and other Christians in Western Sahara?

Most Christians from the sub-Saharan churches don’t know who Foucauld is. Our task is to introduce them to his message, to realise what it means to be a Christian in this land, where almost the entire population is Muslim and Christians are foreigners.

I believe that Foucauld has much to tell us, and that he can be an instrument of the Spirit to teach us how to be Christians in this land, because the temptation for all of us, including for our sub-Saharan brothers, is to copy the models of their own countries, churches and communities. Foucauld is clearly a saint, an inspiration for us. He is a model and an example of Christian life, of the charisma, the way of life, of being and of living, of missioning and of evangelising this land.

He is also an example for us in the congregation, and we always have our sights set on Foucauld. This example confirms us in our mission, and is inseparable from our calling, the Pope’s invitation for us to go out, to open up, and to feel like, and be, brothers to everyone.

One of the projects your congregation is undertaking with the help of ACN is the decoration of the chapels in El Marsa (in the Port of Laayoune) in the North and in Dakhla in the South. What is the aim of these projects?

We want to use the decoration of the chapels as an inspiration for the religious instruction of our Christians, so that they can get deeper into the spirituality of a community in Muslim lands, such as the Sahara. Foucauld wanted the Eucharist to be present amidst the Muslims, and that is what we want to be, the presence of the body of Christ in the Muslim world, in contact with the Muslim world.

In the chapel in El Marsa we are installing mosaics with an arabesque touch, in an Eastern style, because at the moment what we have is an iron cross from 1960, which is in very bad shape. For the oratory in Dakhla we are preparing some ceramic images that show Charles Foucauld and Saint Eugène de Mazenod, the founder of our Congregation, flanking the Virgen of Carmen.

We are also going to install a painting of the Visitation in the entrance hall, because the Visitation represents, for us, a paradigm of mission, to be missionaries in the style of Mary: going out to meet the other, moved by the Spirit, carrying the Lord within us. Next to the painting will be the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic, also in the entrance hall, so that everybody – including Muslims who sometimes come in out of curiosity – can understand what we are and what we wish to be.

missionary in the sahara
Holy Mass of Thanksgiving for the Canonization of Charles De Foucauld

What are the major challenges you face in your mission?

Our Church does here what any other Churches do: celebrate the faith and put itself at the service of all Christians. We are also at the service of the poor, and the abandoned, be they Sahrawis or Moroccan, poor or migrants, and this is a task carried out by Caritas. And, of course, we evangelise, in the sense that we help the Spirit to build the Kingdom of God. Naturally, each place has its own particularities, and the North African churches have some very particular aspects.

The main aspect of these Churches of ours in North Africa is dialogue and encounter with the Muslims who are our neighbours. To create bonds of friendship, of encounter, of love, in the variety of who we are, making friendships. Because we can talk and appreciate each other based on that friendship. I believe that friendship is at the base of all interreligious dialogue.

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