The deaths of seven French monks 20 years ago are as mysterious as their lives are inspirational, writes Greg Daly
Three years before he was killed in 1996, the Trappist monk Fr Christian de Chergé wrote a letter which Milan’s Cardinal Angelo Scola has described as “one of the most beautiful pages ever written in the 20th Century”, one that “gives us a full grasp of how Christian martyrdom contains the fulfilled expression of God’s account of himself, the one he allows to give about him and in his name”.
In his ‘spiritual will’, written at a time he knew his mission in Algeria was likely to end violently, Fr Christian wrote: “When the time comes, I would like to be able to have an instant of lucidity that would allow me to ask for the pardon of God and that of men, my brothers, while forgiving with all my heart those who may have hit me.”
In a powerful testimony to his love for the Muslim neighbours to whom he devoted so much of his life, Fr Christian declared: “I cannot see how I could, in fact, rejoice in that this people I love could be accused of my assassination. It would amount to paying too high a price for what might be called ‘the grace of martyrdom’ to owe it to an Algerian, whoever this might be, especially if he should claim to have acted in faithfulness to what he believes Islam is.”
Even for a priest who frequently prayed alongside his neighbours in their mosques, there is something remarkable about Fr Christian’s observation that his death would be a sort of gift, in that, “I would have been liberated from the most piercing curiosity I carry inside me: to plunge my gaze into that of the Father in order to see his Islamic children the way he sees them: all lit by the glory of Christ, they too as the fruit of his Passion, invested with the gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will be that of re-establishing communion and similarity by playing with differences.”
Fr Christian ended his letter with an extraordinary two-fold expression of gratitude, not merely to God, but to whoever would eventually take his life. “For this lost life of mine, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wanted it whole just for this joy, contrary to all and despite all,” he wrote.
“And you too, my last-moment friend, who will not know what you would be doing, also for you I want to say my thanks, this à-Dieu [literally ‘until we meet in God’], as I contemplate you in God’s face,” he continued, “that it may be given us to meet again, two thieves overwhelmed with joy, in Heaven, if that may please God, our Father, Father of us both.”
Perhaps best known nowadays because of the 2010 film Of Gods and Men, which won the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix and the following year’s César award for best film, topping the French box office for four weeks before being toppled by the rather different Despicable Me, the story of Fr Christian and his fellow monks of Tibherine remains as mysterious as it does inspirational.
Algeria became embroiled in civil war in 1991, when Islamist guerrillas began an armed campaign against the government and its supporters after the country’s army reacted to Islamist success in national elections by effectively taking control of the government and banning the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), arresting thousands of party members.
With the destabilised country increasingly dangerous – between 60,000 and 100,000 Algerians had lost their lives by 1996 in the so-called ‘Dirty War’ that would not end until 2002 – Europeans were encouraged to leave.
In 1993, the French government told its citizens to leave, but French clergy and religious scattered across the war-torn land opted to stay.
Speaking after Fr Christian’s funeral in June 1996, the then Bishop of Oran, Pierre Claverie OP, who would himself be killed in a bomb attack just weeks later on August 1, explained why. “Anyone who wants is free to leave,” he said. “Those who stay are committed to the Church’s presence here. If we leave, those who want ethnic and religious purification will win. A good shepherd does not abandon his flock when wolves come.”
The nine monks, led by Fr Christian, of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance – commonly known as Trappists – at the Priory of Our Lady of Atlas at Tibhirine were such shepherds.
Known as the ‘lungs’ of the Algerian Church, the Trappist community was established in 1938, with the village of Tibhirine growing up around them, but in 1962, after 900,000 Europeans had fled during the Algerian War of Independence, the Trappist abbot general announced at a meeting in Rome that he intended to close the then abbey, despite the protests of the then Archbishop of Algiers, Léon-Etienne Duval.
“The monastery is very important to us,” Dr Duval said. “It is our only mission devoted to contemplation. Muslims attach great importance to prayer. The Koran singles out monks as especially worthy of respect and their presence increases the prestige of the Church in their eyes. It is equally important for Christians to have a place of retreat for contemplation, prayer and rejuvenation. Our community is already demoralised and embattled. Please reconsider.”
The following year, the Trappist superiors reversed their decision after a visit from Jean de la Croix, abbot of Notre Dame d’Aiguebelle, motherhouse of the Tibhirine community. “It would be preferable to close a monastery in France than to close Tibhirine,” he later told Dr Duval. At the time there were just four monks in the monastery, but eight more arrived from other monasteries a year later.
Fr Christian de Chergé, who had been ordained in Paris in 1964 following military service in Algeria where he had lived for a time as a child, joined the community in 1971, and became community prior in 1984 when the community abdicated its abbey status to become an independent priory.
The new prior had long had a deep fondness for Algeria’s Muslims, and had admired their simple devoutness since his time in the armed forces. During the war, a Muslim named Mohammed, a father of 10 children, had saved his life during an ambush. The future Fr Christian said he would pray for Mohammed, who replied, “I know that you will pray for me. But look, Christians don’t know how to pray!”
Mohammed was found murdered the next morning, leading the young Frenchman later to reflect: “In the blood of this friend, I knew that my calling to follow Christ meant to live, sooner or later, in the country where it was given to me the greatest gift of love.”
Algeria’s simple ordinary Muslims, he felt, were typically far more prayerful and devout than France’s Christians, and so he sought to ensure his Christianity was open and welcoming, recognising Muslims as children of God and hearing “the notes that are in harmony”.
Decades of listening for those notes paid off on Christmas Eve 1993, weeks after a grace period given by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) had expired. A group of GIA guerrillas, who had a fortnight earlier ordered the killing of a dozen Croatians 14 km from the priory, arrived and demanded to see Fr Christian.
“This is a house of peace,” he said. “No one has ever come in here carrying weapons. If you want to talk with us, come in, but leave your arms outside. If you cannot do that, we will talk outside.”
Emir Sayat-Attya, the guerrilla leader, then demanded that the priory – being, he believed, wealthy – must support the group, that the monks should send their doctor to care for the GIA wounded, and that the monks donate medicine to the rebels’ cause.
“This is a house of peace,” Fr Christian repeated, continuing, “if you want to talk with us, come in, but leave your arms outside.”
He pointed out that while the priory might seem wealthy, it survived only through the monks’ manual labour, that the Trappist doctor, Bro. Luc Dochier, was too old to travel into the mountains where the rebels were based, and that as religious the community would care for whoever came to them in need of help, without taking sides.
Finally, he said, it was Christmas Eve and the monks were preparing to celebrate Christ’s birth; soldiers ought not to be interrupting their sacred duties. “In that case,” said the guerrilla leader, “please excuse us. We did not know.” The rebels left, promising to return.
Despite the threat, the monks of the community – Fr Christian, Bro. Luc, Fr Amédée Noto, Fr Bruno Lemarchand, Fr Célestin Ringeard, Fr Christophe Lebreton, Fr Jean-Pierre Schumacher, Bro. Michel Fleury and Bro. Paul Favre Miville – held fast to their vow of stability, and determined to remain at Tibhirine.
The local prefect at the nearby town of Medea offered to give the community military protection or even a safe base in the town, but the monks declined both offers, preferring despite the risk, they said, to be a sign of peace to all sides.
The community continued in their lives of prayer, study and manual labour, serving God and the people around them, promising medical aid to any who came to the priory but deciding that they would accept no new members. The following year they voted again to continue in this way.
The war did not abate around them and religious sisters, brothers and priests were not spared. Sr Paule Hélène Saint Raymond of the Little Sisters of the Assumption and the Marist Bro. Henri Vergès were killed in May 1994, with the Augustinian Srs Caridad María Alvarez and Esther Alonso being killed that October as they left an Algiers church.
Writing to the Trappist abbot general after the sisters’ funeral, Fr Christian said the celebration “brought together a tiny church whose still living members all realise that the logic of their presence must now include the possibility of violent death”, continuing that “for many, it is an occasion for a new and radical immersion in the very charism of their congregation”.
Two more nuns, members of the Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart were killed soon afterwards, as were four priests of the Missionaries of Africa, known as the White Fathers, so when a group of guerrillas from the so-called ‘Brothers of the Mountain’ appeared at the priory saying they wanted to use the telephone and that the monks would not be harmed, it was hard to believe that a veiled threat was not in the air.
On March 27, 1996, the long-awaited threat was realised as a group of militants entered the community and kidnapped seven of the nine monks – only Fr Amédée and Fr Jean-Pierre escaped capture, as their cells were apart from those of their brothers.
A month later, the GIA emir Abou Abdel Rahmân Amîn issued a communique in which he said the guarantee of safety previously given to the monks was improper as they “have not ceased to invite Muslims to be evangelised”. In an apparent rejection of Emir Sayat-Attya’s attitude just over two years earlier, he added that “they have continued to display their Christian slogans and symbols and to commemorate their feasts with solemnity”.
Rationalising the abductions, the GIA declared that “the martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom”, and said that on the basis of Sharia law, “it is therefore licit to apply to these monks what applies to unbelievers who are prisoners of war, namely: death, slavery or exchange for Muslim prisoners”. The GIA called for the freeing of their members held by the Algerian and French governments, notably the former leader Abdelhak Layada, saying, “The choice is yours. If you liberate, we shall liberate. If you do not free your prisoners, we will cut the throats of ours.”
On May 23, the GIA announced that it had cut the throats of all seven abducted monks two days earlier, and the government subsequently reported having found the men’s severed heads on May 31.
The monks’ funeral was celebrated in Algiers’ Cathedral of Notre Dame d’Afrique on June 2, with their remains being buried at the priory cemetery two days later.
The exact circumstances of the monks’ deaths remain unclear, however.
In 2002, Mohammed Samraoui, the one-time second-in-command of the DRS, Algeria’s intelligence agency, said that most GIA units during the war had been infiltrated by and often controlled by the DRS, engaging in ‘false flag’ operations intended to make the Islamist groups appear even more ruthless than they were so they would alienate the ordinary people and justify greater state control.
In 2008, the Italian newspaper La Stampa reported how a high-ranking western government official, based in Algeria when the monks were kidnapped and killed, said that the abductions had indeed been organised by such a compromised group, but that the monks had been killed when an Algerian military helicopter attacked the camp where they were held.
The following year, the retired French general François Buchwalter – who in 1996 was the country’s military attaché in Algeria – said the monks had indeed been killed in such an attack, being beheaded afterwards to make it seem that the GIA had killed them.
In October 2014, a French judge, Marc Trévidic, visited Tibhirine to perform autopsies on the monks’ skulls, finding evidence suggesting that the monks were probably killed between April 25 and 27, apparently being buried before being exhumed and subsequently decapitated.
Ultimately, the exact time and manner of the monks’s deaths may matter less than how they lived.
“Yet the monks were not martyrs to their faith,” writes John Kiser in his 2002 book The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Africa. “They did not die because they were Christians. They died because they would not leave their Muslim friends, who depended on them and who lived in equal danger.”
It is perhaps true that the men who killed the monks of Tibhirine were not acting “in hatred of the Faith”, such that the monks did not die martyrs in the classical sense, but it seems a stretch to say that they did not die because they were Christians.
On the contrary, it was their Faith, their love of Christ and their fidelity to their vows, that inspired the Trappists of Tibhirine to remain with their people, and risk death so they could serve God and his children.
The monks’ Catholicism may not – strictly – explain why they were killed, but it does explain why they were willing to remain in a warzone and accept the violent deaths they eventually suffered.
The cause for the beatification of the seven monks, Bishop Pierre Claverie and 11 others is currently underway.