With a personal donation, Pope Benedict XVI - a longtime scholar of the works of St. Augustine - has contributed to the restoration of the Basilica of St. Augustine in Annaba, Algeria, near the site where the fourth-century saint served as bishop of Hippo.
Bishop Paul Desfarges of Constantine, Algeria, told the Vatican newspaper that Pope Benedict's personal donation, as well as a contribution from the U.S.-based Papal Foundation, demonstrates the importance of the project.
The Algerian government also has given its support.
"We all know how St. Augustine is dear to the heart of the pope," the bishop said in the interview published Aug. 24 in L'Osservatore Romano.
"We also know that the basilica of Annaba, in Algeria, isn't just a house of worship. The whole Hippo hill, with the basilica at the summit, is a symbolic place. It is a strong symbol of coexistence and human and spiritual brotherhood," the bishop said.
St. Augustine's life story, his culture and education, his search for God and to do God's will prompt both Christians and Muslims, as well as nonbelievers, to examine what is most essential in life, he said.
The Basilica of St. Augustine, completed in 1900, stands a few hundred yards from the archaeological site of the ancient town of Hippo Regius. The ruins include the remains of the ancient basilica where St. Augustine served as bishop from 395 to 430.
The basilica is staffed by three Augustinian priests, the bishop said. They would like to have more priests there for pastoral work and welcoming pilgrims and tourists, but getting visas for priests and religious is a challenge.
Bishop Desfarges said the visitors include many Muslims who want to get to know St. Augustine better or are just looking for a quiet place.
"When you step over the threshold into the basilica, you understand you did not enter a museum, but a place where silence and peace capture you," he said.
Vatican statistics report about 12 million people living within the geographical boundaries of the Diocese of Constantine; only about 1,000 of those people are Catholic.
Bishop Desfarges said the Catholic community in Algeria is made up mostly of Catholic students from sub-Saharan Africa and Filipinos working for international companies.
"For some, integration isn't always easy, but with time relationships deepen and are transformed into friendships, and that is part of the mission of our church," he said.
A very few members of the church are Algerian; "they are not numerous; some people call them 'friends of St. Augustine,'" he said. "They are people who, in their own way, have undergone the same experience St. Augustine had of discovering the presence of God in the intimacy of their hearts and today invoke Jesus. They are a sign of God's desire to live among his people."
Bishop Desfarges said the rights of Christians are not always respected: "The cross is not absent from our journey, but here we also experience the beauty of deep spiritual and human encounters," knowing that "the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of all believers."
While too many Christians think of Islam as a predominantly political and ideological religion, he said, Catholics in Algeria have had "important and profound encounters with the spirituality of Islam."