0n Christmas Eve 1993, in the remote Atlas Mountains of Algeria, several men carrying machine guns appeared in the courtyard of the Trappist monastery at Tibhirine. Besides the unexpected presence, recent events made their appearance ominous. On December 1 of the same year, a one-month grace period had expired in which the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), rebels fighting the government, had warned all foreigners to leave the country. Two weeks later, twelve Croatians working at a hydraulic plant nine miles away from the monastery had had their throats cut, partly in retaliation for what the rebels regarded as ongoing mistreatment of Muslims in Bosnia at the time, partly because the Croatians were foreign Christians. The same man who had ordered the slaughter of the Croatians Sayat-Attya, led the armed group that entered the Trappist monastery and demanded to see the Trappist father superior.
Father Christian de Chergé, a Frenchmen like all the other monks, appeared, but was not intimidated: "This is a house of peace. 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." It was a bold gesture, but Dom Christian had learned something living among the Algerian Muslims for almost twenty-five years: in their own way, even the armed bands respected religious commitment to peace. Nonetheless, the intruders made three demands. First, the monastery was rich and had to support the rebels; second, the Trappists had to send their doctor to take care of the GIA wounded; finally, as religious, the monks should donate medicine to the revolutionary cause.
Dom Christian deftly parried each of these requests. The community might seem rich, but was in fact poor, earning its own daily bread by working. The doctor was too old to travel into the Atlas mountains. But most importantly, as religious, the monks would care for whoever appeared in need before them, without taking sides in political or military conflicts. Besides, it was Christmas Eve and they were at the moment preparing to celebrate the feast commemorating Christ's birth; it was outrageous for soldiers to interrupt them in their sacred duties. With what appears to an outsider as an odd mixture of chivalry and brutality, Emir Sayat-Attya apologized: "In that case, please excuse us. We did not know." But he promised to return. Dom Christian had turned aside the threat—for the moment.
"This is a house of peace. If you want to talk with us, come in, but leave your arms outside.”
A little over two-and-a-half years later, Dom Christian and six of his companions would have their throats cut in cold blood. Their case is one of the most widely reported martyrdoms in Africa in the twentieth century, besides those connected with the genocide in Rwanda. Some may say that the event was widely reported because it involved Europeans rather than native Africans, and there is some truth in this claim. But the manner of their deaths and the extensive documentation that exists about it have made it easy, unlike the cases of thousands of native black African martyrs, to reconstruct how one group of Christians was willing to expose itself to danger as a religious witness, knowing in advance that the gesture would probably bear little immediate fruit.
Algeria, as a French colony, presented many difficulties to missionaries at the beginning of the twentieth century. At the century's end, if anything, the difficulties were even worse. In the first half of the twentieth century, large numbers of mostly Christian French and mostly Muslim Algerians managed to find a rough modus vivendi with each other. But the French departed in the 1960s, under serious indigenous pressures. Their withdrawal amid much turmoil led to various atrocities. Even as decent a moral commentator as Albert Camus, a native French Algerian, did not know what to recommend any longer near the end. Algeria entered a tumultuous period in which various indigenous factions vied for power, some involving predominantly Islamic elements, others of a basically secular cast.
But in the 1980s and 1990s, Algeria, like many other countries with large Muslim populations, began to feel the pressure of fundamentalist Islamic groups that were springing up around the world. Algeria had already damaged its relations with France. But with the new fundamentalist groups, some of which practiced terrorism against Westerners and even against their own government, a new type of intolerance arrived. Many devout Muslims around the world had denounced the terrorism as not in harmony with the principles of Islam, which proclaims that Allah is the All-Merciful. But for the extremists, fundamentalist Islam presented a potent combination of political power and religious enthusiasm that could be used to assert national identity in the world over against the influential, wealthy nations.
Dom Bernardo Olivera, the abbot general of the Trappists, has written a moving account of , which includes many of their last letters and, therefore, enables us to know very clearly both what happened and what the monks believed they were doing. Like all the monks and nuns in the Benedictine/Cistercian tradition, they took a vow of "stability," which is meant to link them to the community in which they live until death. During the same period, because of threats to monastic establishment in many parts of the world, Trappist monasteries in Angola, Uganda, Bosnia, and Zaire also had to decide whether it was more prudent to stay or leave. In most cases (the monastery in Mokoto, Zaire, being the only exception), they had decided to stay. The decision is voted on by the whole community after thorough discussion among the members.
In the Algerian case, the monks knew quite well what they were facing. The monastery at Tibhirine, Our Lady of Atlas, had been founded in 1934 as an offshoot of the Yugoslavian Abbey of Our Lady of Liberation. Though Atlas went through ups and downs, like any monastery, it had committed itself to a continuous witness among the people of Atlas for over half a century of Algerian history, including the most troubled periods. Indeed, one of the most touching statements about their feelings toward the area emerged immediately after the Christmas Eve 1993 visit when the guerilla fighters wanted the monastery to give them medical, financial, and logistical support in exchange for security. On the government side, the Wali, or prefect, of the nearby town of Medea offered the monks military protection or at least a more secure place to live within the city. The Trappists turned down both offers, however, because they preferred being a sign of peace to all sides even at the risk to their own safety. But they also pointed out that even temporary transfer to the prefect's protection might make it impossible to return and "our neighbors would not understand."
Algeria, like many other countries with large Muslim populations, began to feel the pressure of fundamentalist Islamic groups.
So they remained in the monastery with basically no change in their way of life. The only modifications in policy that they voted for were to offer medical aid to all comers at the monastery itself, to reduce for the moment the number of monks, to halt taking on new novices for the time being, and, in case of emergency, to move to Morocco instead of France, so that they could return as soon as conditions allowed. Their commitment to being open witnesses to God's love was so firm that they even turned down an offer by the apostolic nuncio to move the monastery within the nunciature. The following year they voted again to confirm their commitment to be living witnesses of God's love in Algeria—through prayer, a simple life, manual labor, and openness and sharing with everyone, especially the poorest.
The calmness and lucidity of these decisions were a marked contrast to the fact that armed conflict was increasing all around the Trappists. The violence struck at Christians in particular. First, a Little Sister of the Assumption, Paule Hélène Saint Raymond, and a Marist brother, Henri Vergès, were killed by Islamic militants on May 8, 1994. Vergès's death called forth from Dom Christian this reflection:
His death seems so natural, so fitting to a long life entirely given, intentionally, from the first. He seems to me to belong to the category of those whom I call "martyrs of hope," who are never spoken of because it is in the patience of daily life that they spill all their blood. I understand "monastic martyrdom" in the same way. And it is this instinct that currently leads us not to change anything, unless toward a permanent effort of conversion (but even in this there is no change!).
Two women religious, the Augustinians Caridad María Alvarez and Esther Alonso, were assassinated in October of 1994 as they left a church in Algiers. In a letter to the abbot general, Dom Christian described the funeral for the two women in terms of the effects it had on the small remnant of what had once been a large church in Algiers: "The celebration had a beautiful climate of serenity and self-offering. It brought together a tiny church whose still living members all realize that the logic of their presence must now include the possibility of violent death. For many, it is an occasion for a new and radical immersion in the very charism of their congregation...as well as a return to the very fount of their first calling. Furthermore, it is clear that all desire that none of these Algerians, to whom our consecration links us in the name of the love that God has for them, should wound that love by killing any of us, any of our Brothers."
Christians continued to be killed, however. Dom Christian noted that like the Jesuits, Little Brothers of Jesus, the White Fathers, and other, his Trappists had all decided to stay in their African posts despite the risks, as a gesture of faith in the future. The risks were growing rapidly. First two more nuns, Odile Prévost and a Sister Chantal, both rnembers of Charles Foucauld's Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart, perished. Then Jean Chevillar, Christian Cheissel, Alain Dieulangard, and Charles Deckers—four White Fathers, a community with longstanding ties to Africa, were killed in Tizi Ouzou.
“I do not see how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder.”
The Trappist community received another "visit," this time from the "brothers of the mountain," a different armed group. They claimed only to want to use the monastery telephone and gave the monks guarantees that they would not be harmed, even after they had not been allowed to enter. But Dom Christian and his colleagues knew that a veiled threat remained. When some sisters of Our Lady of the Apostles also fell to armed bands, a visiting papal delegate told the Trappists at the funeral that he admired and agreed with their decision, but encouraged them not to ignore basic prudence and discretion despite their commitments. The monks had long ago made up their minds to give a certain kind of witness: "We see that we are at a juncture between two groups [i.e., government and Fundamentalist rebels] who are in conflict here and, to some extent, everywhere in the West and the Near East."
Father Christopher Lebreton, another of the Trappists, wrote of how the slow process with all its threats affected them all. He had been one of the student revolutionaries in France in 1968, a generation supposedly afraid of commitment. But events since then had carried him to a far different place:
There is something unique in our way of being Church: how we react to events, how we wait for them and live them out in practice. It has to do with a certain awareness, that we are responsible not for doing something, but for being something here, in response to Truth and to Love. Are we facing eternity? There is a sense of that. "Our Lady of Atlas, a sign on the mountains," signum in montibus, as our coat of arms declares.
And he observes: "The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom." In all of this, it is difficult not to feel that we have a window into something of the same spirit with which Christ himself remained firm in his decision to go up to Jerusalem near his end, even though he knew what the result would be.
The Trappists, of course, had Christ's example constantly in mind. But they were also mindful that to claim for themselves some kind of special virtue in the circumstances would be to betray the humble love that they felt for the Algerians. For one thing, they feared that the outside world, knowing little of the good Muslim people (who later condemned the killing of the monks), would take their death as a triumphalistic mark of Christian superiority, Dom Christian in particular, with his long experience of Algiers and of life, reflects in a document that has become known as his :
During the night of March 27, 1996, seven of the monks were abducted in a two month ordeal that would stretch out almost until Pentecost.
I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in the evil which might blindly strike me down. I would like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who will strike me down. I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder. It would be too high a price to pay for what will perhaps be called the "grace of martyrdom."
Dom Christian had long been one of the guiding spirits of the Ribat es Salam ("Bond of Peace"), a group engaged in Islamic-Christian dialogue. If anything were likely to overcome centuries of conflict and mistrust between Muslims and Christians, it would have to be the kind of initiative, backed up by willingness to give everything, that he and his brothers engaged in. His final words in the Testament are addressed to the person who may, someday, cause his death: "In God's face I see yours. May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. Amen! In H'Allah!"
That heartfelt prayer was soon tested. As is often the case with martydom, the finale was mixed up with politics and human passions in a way that, for some observers, might obscure the offering of self that was present among the monks for years before the end. During the night of March 27, 1996, seven of the monks were abducted in a two month ordeal that would stretch out almost until Pentecost. A month after the abduction, a GIA communique offered several reasons why the monks were seized and several conditions for their safe release. Among the reasons given for why the action was licit, the GIA emir, Abou Abdel Rahmân Amîn (popularly called Djamel Zitouni), argued that the previous protection (aman) was improper because the monks "have not ceased to invite Muslims to be evangelized. They have continued to display their Christian slogans and symbols and to commemorate their feasts with solemnity." Gone was the mutual religious respect manifested by the dark visitors on Christmas Eve two years earlier.
Citing selectively from Muslim law, the emir also stated: "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." Despite the religious forms, it was the last point—political advantages— that seems to have really motivated the GIA. They demanded the release of GIA members held by Algeria and France with this threat: "The choice is yours. If you liberate, we shall liberate. If you do not free your prisoners, we will cut the throats of ours. Glory to God."
"The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom."
Governments who are given ultimatums by terrorists cannot give in without inviting more terrorism. That reasoning guided the French and Algerian authorities, though they sought ways to negotiate a solution. Pope John Paul II asked the abductors during his Palm Sunday Angelus that March, "Let them go back to their monastery safe and sound, and let them take up their place again among their Algerian friends." But all outside pleas were to no avail. On May 23, the GIA announced that they had cut the throats of all seven monks—Dom Christian de Chergè, Brother Luke Dochier, Father Christopher Lebreton, Brother Michael Fleury, Father Bruno Lemarchand, Father Celestine Ringeard, and Brother Paul Favre Miville—two days before.
Their heads were found, but not their bodies, reminding some present of the story of John the Baptist. The funeral Mass took place in the Algiers Basilica of Our Lady of Africa. Cardinal Arinze, an African himself, presided along with various French, Algerian, and other dignitaries. The remains were then quietly taken, with military security, back to the monastery for burial together in the cemetary there. Several Algerians, including the neighbors of the monastery, offered their sincere condolences for the loss of seven men who were both monks and friends to Muslims. The neighbors told the departing Christians, "Don't leave us, you must return." Cardinal Lustiger of Paris celebrated Mass the next day and commended "the faith of this small local church which gives life and support to the decadent faith of old Europe." But all was not over. Pierre Lucien Cavarie, bishop of the Algerian city of Oran, was killed by terrorists while driving. A year later, John Paul II, hospitalized at the Gemelli Clinic in Rome, sent a message to the Trappists reminding them of a duty toward the seven, the bishop, and all the other victims of the conflict: "You are the custodians of this martydom, the persons on watch in prayer... so that the memory of this event remains fruitful in the future for Trappists and for the whole Church."