In 1996, on the night of March 26/27, seven monks from the Trappist monastery of Tibhirine, south of Algiers, were kidnapped by Muslim fundamentalists. Fifty-six days later on May 21 all of them were beheaded. I tell their moving story in my book, Christian Martyrs for a Muslim People, the story of their love for their Muslim neighbours in Algeria. The heroic witness of these martyrs of love has now been made into a film, Of Gods and Men, winner of the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
The decision of the seven monks to continue to live at Tibhirine despite the grave danger they faced can best be understood by looking at the story of Frère Christian de Chergé, their prior. Christian, the second of eight children, was born into a strongly Catholic family on January 18 1937 in Colmar, France. He became a monk in 1969 and in 1971 he moved to the monastery of Tibhirine in Algeria where he would be rooted for the rest of his life. Christian wished to live out his monastic commitment in Algeria as a sign of his love for the Muslim people and to deepen his understanding and appreciation of Islam, to become a man of prayer alongside a people of prayer.
Christian de Chergé, like all other foreigners in Algeria, had been put under sentence of death in October, 1993 by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA, from French Groupe Islamique Armé), an armed Islamic group seeking to impose sharia law on the country. Christian had committed himself to service of the Algerian Church and the Algerian people. He was unwilling to turn back as they faced their moment of greatest need. Christian knew that he almost certainly didn’t have much time left to live and that the wisdom of his decision to stay on in Algeria and face the possibility of execution would be questioned. On Christmas Eve 1993, the monks had their first visit by an armed group. Christian, realising that time was short, completed his testament on January 1 1994 and sent it to his nephew in France to be opened upon his death. This short document was a summing up of his long spiritual journey and of his love for God and for the Algerian people.
It read: “If it should happen one day – and it could be today – that I should be a victim of the terrorism which now seems to want to embrace all foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family to remember that my life was given to God and to this country.”
Here, Christian draws attention to the mindless violence which was plagueing Algerian society in those terrible years of civil war starting in 1992. An estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Algerians were brutally murdered, among them 19 priests and religious and about 100 lay Christians. There were also deeply personal reasons why Christian should be willing, if necessary, to lay down his life for his friends. While on national service in Algeria in 1959, during the Algerian war of independence, he had befriended a local policeman, Mohammed, a father of 10 and a devout Muslim. One day an attempt was made on Christian’s life. Luckily Mohammed managed to shield him and save his life. The following day, however, his friend was found assassinated by the roadside. This incident left an indelible mark on Christian. He could never forget that an Algerian Muslim friend had sacrificed his life for him.
The GIA had issued an ultimatum to all foreigners to leave the country by December 1 1993 or face execution. Twelve Croats were assassinated on December 14, at Tamesguida, two and a half miles from the monastery, because they were foreigners and Christians. These immigrant workers used to attend midnight Mass at the monastery and were well known to the monks. When the GIA leader Sayah Attia invaded the monastery on Christmas Eve 1993, Christian knew he was speaking to someone who had already cut the throats of 145 people, a person referred to in the press as “a filthy beast”. Christian, however, held on to the biblical teaching that “in every person there is something of the eternal”, that each person shows forth the face of God. He tells us that in this encounter he was not only the guardian of his monastic community but also the guardian of God’s image in Attia. Even in the worst of people there is a glimpse to be caught of the face of God. He entrusted Attia to God’s mercy.
The first reason why the Tibhirine monks stayed was to show solidarity with the villagers who had no means of escaping the encircling violence of the civil war. The monastic community had developed a very close relationship with its Muslim neighbours, even to the extent of allowing them to use one of the monastery rooms as a temporary mosque. A second reason for staying was the monks’ wish to show solidarity with the beleaguered and fast-dwindling Christian Church in Algeria.
Mgr Henri Teissier, Archbishop of Algiers from 1988 to 2008, was well placed to meditate on this difficult question of how to react to threats and intimidation. His own life was constantly under threat and he had to learn to live with this on a daily basis. He wished to respect the sacredness of human life and not risk it for ideological reasons. But he asks: “How can one renounce risking one’s life for people with whom one is in solidarity? It is so much in harmony with what we meet in the life of Jesus and with what we celebrate in the Eucharist.”
Like Jesus, their master, the monks of Tibhirine knew that to lay down one’s life for one’s friends was the supreme expression of love. And since their arrival in Tibhirine in 1938 they had forged an unbreakable bond of friendship with the villagers, their co-workers, neighbours and fellow believers in the one God.
On the night of March 26–27 1996 Christian and six of his fellow monks were abducted by a fundamentalist group and beheaded 56 days later on May 21. Christian knew that such a violent death was very likely and he had written in his testament: “And you also, friend of the last moment, who will not have known what you were doing. Yes, for you also I want to say thank you and this à-dieu to you in whom God’s face can be contemplated. And may we be lucky enough to meet again, happy good thieves, in paradise, should it please God, the Father of both of us. Amen! Insha’Allah!”
Christian here expresses the essence of the Gospel in his attitude to the Islamic fundamentalist, the “friend of the last moment”, who would kill him, namely, love even of our enemies. The message of the martyrdom of Christian and his six fellow monks of Tibhirine is one of love and forgiveness, especially of one’s enemies.
Reflecting on the almost total destruction of the Church in Algeria, Brother Paul of Tibhirine wrote in January, 1995: “Nevertheless I believe that the Good News is being sown, the seed is germinating … The Spirit is at work; he works in the depths of people’s hearts. Let us be available so that he may act in us through prayer and a loving presence to all our brothers.”
By giving their lives out of love, the seven Tibhirine martyrs continue to inspire both Christians and Muslims. The seeds they have sown are bearing an abundant harvest.
Fr Martin McGee’s book, Christian Martyrs for a Muslim People, is published by Paulist Press (www.paulistpress.com). He is a monk at Worth Abbey