October 2011 - Vol. 53

The Trappist Martyrs of Algiers
by Jeanne Kun

Algeria, formerly a colony of France, became an independent republic in 1962. Since then, indigenous Muslim groups have continually vied for power within the country. Violence increased markedly in 1992 after unpopular government authorities canceled an election that Islamic fundamentalists seemed likely to win. Extreme militant groups began to use terrorist tactics in their efforts to gain political and spiritual control of the nation. On May 21, 1996, in an act that stunned and grieved both the Christian and Muslim world, seven monks of the Cistercian (Trappist) Monastery of Our Lady of Atlas, near Tibhirine, Algeria, were brutally executed [beheaded], presumably by the radical Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé or GIA) who held them captive for nearly two months.

The Trappists Dom Christian de Chergé (59), Prior of Our Lady of Atlas; Father Christophe Lebreton (45), Master of Novices; Brother Luc Dochier (82); Brother Michel Fleury (52); Father Bruno Lemarchand (66); Father Célestin Ringeard (62); and Brother Paul Favre-Miville (57) had been abducted from their monastery nearly two months earlier, during the night of March 26. (Two monks sleeping in another building escaped capture, as did the visitors in the guesthouse.) Nothing was heard of the kidnapped monks until April 27, when a London Arabic newspaper, Al Hayat, published extracts from a communiqué issued April 18 by the GIA.

In the communiqué, the GIA’s emir said he considered the protection that his predecessor had accorded the Trappists illicit since they had not “ceased to invite Muslims to be evangelized, to display their slogans and symbols, and to commemorate their feasts with solemnity.” The statement continued: “Monks who live among the working classes can be legitimately killed. . . . They live with people and draw them away from the divine path, urging them to be evangelized. It is also licit to apply to them what applies to lifelong unbelievers when they are prisoners of war: murder, slavery, or exchange for Muslim prisoners.” 

All the monks of Our Lady of Atlas Monastery had long been aware of the dangers surrounding them. Between December 1993 and the spring of 1996, militant Muslims had slit the throats of twelve Croatian Catholics working at a nearby Algerian hydraulic plant and killed eleven priests and nuns of various religious congregations. The Trappists had even received veiled threats and intimidating “visits” to their monastery. Nevertheless, their commitment to peace among all people, their desire to aid their Algerian neighbors, and their hope of maintaining their vow of stability linking them together in their monastic community were so firm that they voted to remain at Our Lady of Atlas despite the danger.

The prior of the monastery, Dom Christian, had been involved for many years in interreligious dialogue and was the inspiring spirit of the Islamic-Christian dialogue group known as Ribat es Salam (Bond of Peace). He and his fellow monks willingly risked their own safety to maintain a Christian witness among the Algerians. They had dedicated their monastic lives to furthering healthy relations between Muslims and Christians, and hoped that their continued presence living a life of prayer, simplicity, manual labor, and openness to everyone, especially the poor would be a visible sign of God’s love in Algeria. The writings of the monks during these months reveal this profound understanding of their vocation as well as their clear awareness that, in faithfully living it out, they might in love give up their lives as martyrs.

All seven of the Trappist monks were French citizens. Not wanting to encourage further terrorism, the French government refused GIA demands to release previously captured terrorists in exchange for the hostages. Pope John Paul II publicly asked the abductors to free their prisoners. Instead, on May 23, Radio Medi I in Tangiers read extracts from a GIA communiqué announcing that all seven of the monks had been beheaded two days earlier. They were slain because of the witness of their Christian faith, martyred in an act of religious intolerance and hatred.

Of Gods and Men
A movie and DVD based on the story of the monks of Algiers released in 2010. 

A movie review by Christianity Today Magazine describes it as a "quiet, profound meditation on martyrdom, based on a true story of Trappist monks."

That evening, millions watched on television as Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris extinguished the seven candles which, in the presence of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders, he had lit seven weeks earlier as a prayer and a hope for the release of the monks. 

The leader of the Islamic Salvation Front publicly condemned “this criminal act, which runs absolutely contrary to the principles of Islam.” In addition, the High Council of French Muslims stated: “We strongly condemn this savage and barbaric act. It is forbidden in the holy Koran to touch ‘all servants of God,’ and that means priests and rabbis as well.” 

In his Pentecost address on May 26 that year, the pope told the world: “Despite our deep sorrow, we thank God for the witness of love given by these religious. Their fidelity and constancy give honor to the church and surely will be seeds of reconciliation and peace for the Algerian people, with whom they were in solidarity.”

Also on Pentecost Sunday, Cardinal Lustiger relit the seven candles before the high altar of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in a powerfully symbolic gesture, declaring that the monks had not died in vain, but rather “for life, for love, and for reconciliation.”

The funeral Mass was held in the Basilica of Our Lady of Africa in Algiers on June 2, and the remains of the monks were buried in their monastery’s cemetery near Tibhirine. The Muslim villagers, who loved the monks and had often benefited from their prayer, hospitality, and care, had dug the seven graves.

[This article is excerpted from the book, Even Unto Death: Wisdom from Modern Martyrs, edited by Jeanne Kun, The Word Among Us Press, © 2002. All rights reserved. Used with permission. The book can be ordered from WAU Press

Jeanne Kun is President of Bethany Association and a senior woman leader in the Word of Life Community, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.].

United in Love 
excerpts from the writings of the Trappists in Algiers

After the monastery had been “visited” by members of the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé or GIA) on Christmas Eve 1993, Dom Christian sought to express the monks’ position in a letter to the chief of the GIA, Sayah Attiya: 

Brother, allow me to address you like this, as man to man, believer to believer. . . . In the present conflict in which our country [Algeria] is experiencing, it seems to us impossible to take sides. The fact that we are foreigners forbids it. Our state as monks binds us to God’s choice for us, which is prayer and the simple life, manual work, hospitality, and sharing with everyone, especially with the poor. . . . These reasons for our life are a free choice for each one of us. They bind us until death. I do not think that it is God’s will that this death should come to us through you. . . . If one day the Algerians judge that we are unwelcome, we will respect their desire to see us leave. With very great regret I know that we will continue to love them all, as a whole, and that includes you. When and how will this message reach you? It does not matter! I needed to write it to you today. 
Forgive me for having written in my mother tongue. You understand me. And may the only One of all life lead us! Amin.

In October 1994, two Augustinian nuns were murdered by Islamic fundamentalists. On November 13, 1994, Dom Christian wrote to the Abbot General of the Cistercians: 

The communities of men seem to be standing by their option to remain. This is clear so far for the Jesuits, the Little Brothers of Jesus, all the White Fathers. It is also clear for us. At Tibhirine as elsewhere this option has its risks. That is obvious. Each one has told me that he wants to take them, in a journey of faith into the future and in sharing the present with neighbors who have always been very close friends of ours. The grace of this gift is given to us from day to day, very simply. At the end of September we had another nocturnal “visit.” This time the “brothers of the mountain” wanted to use our telephone. We ... emphasized the contradiction between our way of life and any kind of complicity with what could harm the life of another. They gave us assurances, but the threat was there, supported by arms.

Aware of the danger to their lives, Father Christophe Lebreton, Master of Novices, made a conscious effort to discern and interpret God’s will and frequently noted his thoughts in his journal. 

Journal entry, January 15, 1994:

Where is fidelity? Who is the one who obeys? The one who says and declares categorically and sure of himself: I will never leave this place.

Or the other who has said: I would like to go, and who is still here. . .
persevering in your teaching (the Gospel here today)
in the monastery until death
(which came close and is still threatening)
sharing in your sufferings O Christ our Passover 
by patience
in order to merit
to be in your kingdom
new Eucharists
other Christs.

In the monastery until death, yes, if and as you wish, but not apart from a living fidelity to your teaching: what the Spirit is saying at this time in the Church.

Journal entry, July 25, 1995:

I ask of you this day the grace to become a servant 
and to give my life
as a ransom for peace
as a ransom for life.

Jesus draw me
into your joy
of crucified love.

From a Lenten homily preached by Dom Christian on March 8, 1996, a few weeks before he and his brother monks were abducted:

In fact it is very clear that we should not wish this death, not only because we are afraid, but because we should not wish for a glory that would be gotten at the price of a murder, which would make the one to whom I owe it a murderer. God cannot allow for that: You shall not kill, this commandment applies to my brother and I must do all I can to love him enough to turn him away from what he would want to commit. I love them enough, all the Algerians, not to want one of them to be the Cain of his brother.

[Selections from text by Dom Christian de Cherge, O.C.S.O, and Father Christophe Lebreton, O.C.S.O., (c) Association des Ecrits des Sept de l'Atlas, Aiguebelle, 26230 Montjoyer, France.

Selections from text by Dom Bernardo Olivera, O.C.S.O., (c) Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, Curia Generals, Rome, Italy.]


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