The French officer was in trouble. Just twenty-three, second lieutenant Christian de Chergé had been drafted while halfway through his seminary studies.
Now stationed as a peacekeeping officer in the little town of Tiaret, Algeria, he was out walking with his friend Mohammed, the town policeman, when Muslim rebels saw him and raised their rifles to shoot. Their hostility was no mystery. It was 1959, and the rebels hated the French colonials who had been ruling their country since 1830.
Suddenly Mohammed stepped in front of the gunmen and spoke up for his friend. The rebels walked away, leaving them unharmed. But the Muslim paid a high price for his courageous act the next day, he was found dead. It was a sacrifice that would mark Christian for the rest of his life. He wrote later:
I cannot forget Mohammed who one day protected my life by exposing his own . . . and who was killed by his own brothers for refusing to turn over one of his friends. He didn’t want to make the choice between the one and the other. “Where there is love there is God!”
The young Frenchman could not have guessed that almost forty years later, he would make a similar sacrifice, dying at the hands of men who did not understand his love for the Muslim people. On May 21, 1996, it was announced that Father Christian de Chergé who had been serving as prior of the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Atlas, in Tibhirine, Algeria had been murdered by Muslim extremists, along with six of his brother monks.
Algerians and French alike were shocked. Many Muslims, among them noted clerics, condemned the killings as contrary to the teachings of Islam. Throughout France, church bells tolled for the slain. While many people mourned the violence of the tragedy, those who knew the monks saw it in a different light. Like Christian’s friend Mohammed, the seven had offered their lives to God and neighbor.
Bridge Builders. The seven Trappists were part of a monastic community that had been established as a Christian witness to Algeria. There is no doubt that their prophetic witness was needed.
Since 1962, when Algeria gained independence from France, the country had seethed with political strife. A socialist Islamic government had formed in 1976, but extremists disapproved. Angered by economic inequality and corruption, they wanted a more radically Islamic state. Free elections were finally held in 1990, but civil war broke out when the government tried to suppress the fundamentalist Islamic group that won a majority of the vote. As unrest continued, radicals began a rampage of terrorist acts against foreigners.
In a country where it was forbidden to preach the gospel of Christ openly, the monks of Tibhirine preached it with their lives. Father Luc, who ran the monastery’s dispensary, also cared for sick people in the area and was seen by up to fifty patients a day. Father Christophe, the community liturgist and novice master, oversaw the vegetable garden and loved to talk with the local people he hired to help him work it. When he was ordained in 1990, several of his Muslim friends came to the monastery for the ceremony. The other Trappists Father Célestin, Brother Paul, Brother Michel, and Brother Bruno were also examples of friendliness, compassion, and humility.
But it was perhaps Father Christian who most fully embodied the monastery’s prophetic spirit. Though his calling to love and understand the Muslim people had been spurred by the death of his friend, Christian had always been fascinated by Islam. He had lived in Algeria as a child during World War II, while his father was stationed there, and was intrigued by seeing Muslims at prayer. He had come to believe that Islam, with its emphasis on prayer and good works, had much in common with Christianity. He was also inspired by the Second Vatican Council’s encouragement of genuine inter-religious dialogue.
Christian became a Trappist in 1969 and went to Our Lady of Atlas in 1971. He went back to Rome for two years, studying Arabic culture and language. Upon his return to Atlas, he encouraged the development of a group called the ribat-es-salaam, or Bond of Peace. The ribat was a group of Christians from different parts of Algeria who met together regularly at the monastery to try to understand Islam. When Father Christian was elected prior in 1984, he made the monastery as open as possible to Muslims, even setting aside a place where they could pray and sometimes inviting them to meals.
A Fateful Christmas Eve. As the monks knew all too well, not everyone in Algeria shared their desire for peaceful coexistence. The hard fact was driven home on December 24, 1993. Just after the community had finished its evening Angelus, three men armed with machine guns broke into the monastery guesthouse. They were headed by Abou Younes Sayah Attia, a leader in the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), an extremist faction that had recently warned all foreigners to leave the country within a month or face death. On December 15, Attia had ordered the brutal execution of twelve Croatian construction workers at a camp just miles from Tibhirine.
Demanding to see “the Pope of the house,” Attia forced two of the brothers to lead him to the prior. Father Christian was not cowed. He told Attia to have his men put their guns outside, saying angrily, “This is a house of peace. No one has ever come in here carrying weapons!”
The two men talked in the monastery courtyard, with Attia demanding that the monks help the GIA. Christian would not comply with Attia’s demand that elderly Father Luc leave Atlas to treat their sick. Nor would he give the rebels money to help their cause; the monks were poor and lived simply, off the land just as the Koran said they should, Christian pointed out. But he did agree to treat their sick inside the monastery and to give them whatever medicines they needed.
As the two finished their conversation, Father Christian reminded Attia that it was Christmas Eve and that the monks were celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace. Attia who, according to authorities, had personally killed 145 people seemed flustered as he shook Christian’s hand. “In that case, excuse us,” he said. “We did not know.”
Maintaining a Prophetic Presence. After that incident, the community voted to leave the monastery. Certainly they had no desire to die or to be forced into giving money to terrorists. However, a visit from the bishop of Algiers, Henri Teissier, made them reconsider. Bishop Teissier reminded the monks that their mere presence was important to the people of Tibhirine and that their departure might cause other Christians in Algeria to flee.
Three of the Trappists went back to France, at least temporarily one who needed treatment for his heart condition; one whose mother was sick; and one novice, still undecided about his vocation, who left to finish his studies. But because they were committed to their monastery and to the people they loved, the other brothers remained. Eleven other religious were killed in Algeria over the next four years, but this did not change the Trappists’ minds. In a special way, they saw themselves as willingly bound to the monastery, to each other, and to the people of Tibhirine.
Father Christophe’s reaction to the monks’ unsettling “Christmas present” shows that he understood this vocation very well:
I know that we are not better people, nor heroes, nor anything extraordinary. I feel this very strongly here at Tibhirine. And yet, there is something unique in our way of being church . . . 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.
For Father Christian, too, there was nothing “heroic” in the decision to stay at Tibhirine. The monks’ vocation of prayer, work, and charity required it, he felt. He also knew that native Algerians were undergoing tremendous suffering about 100,000 Algerians died as the result of the civil wars that began in the 1990s. Refusing to choose one side or the other, the prior chose peace. That meant staying to “be” the peace of Christ to the Muslims and to share in their suffering.
The monks were not naïve about the dangers they faced. After the shooting of four clerics in a nearby town in 1995, Brother Paul wrote of his community’s decision: “How far does one go to save his skin without running the risk of losing his soul? What will remain of the Church in Algeria in a few more months? Little, I fear. Yet, I believe the good news is spreading; the seed is germinating.”
In a remarkable way, the Trappists’ desire to remain as a peaceful presence of the church in Algeria extended even to the extremists who threatened their lives. Father Luc prayed that he could die without hatred for his killers. Father Christophe, realizing that he might soon be taken hostage, wrote in his journal that a true hostage is one who gives his life freely, “with love and forgiveness,” and that only Jesus could give one that grace.
Father Christian said that one reason he did not desire martyrdom was because it meant that someone would have to break God’s law to kill him. And in a moving testimony written in 1994, he said: “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.”
On March 27, 1996, Father Christian and his brother monks were kidnapped. The offering of their lives was headed toward completion.
The Fruits of Love. The monks of Atlas did not set out to change Algeria. But though they desired only to be faithful to their call in both life and death, they succeeded in making a powerful impact. Because of their dedication to a life of prayer, humble work, and service to the poor their patient and loving witness to Christ the brothers were loved by their neighbors. The people of Tibhirine knew that whenever they came to the monastery, they would be welcomed as family. Six Muslims even celebrated Christmas Eve with the brothers in 1995 certainly an unusual happening in Algeria at that time.
The local outpouring of grief at the men’s deaths shows what an effect their lives had. Bishop Teissier received thousands of sympathetic letters from Algerians who expressed their shock and grief and condemned murder done in the name of Islam. On the day of the burial, crowds of mourners from Tibhirine pressed in to be near the monks’ coffins. An Algerian officer sent to guard the monastery afterwards was heard to say, “If someone told me to become a Christian, I would; yes, I would become a Christian. These men truly loved God. They loved Algeria more than the Algerians themselves.”
There is still terrorism in Algeria, yet the witness of its seven martyrs lives on as a testament which our world badly needs.
There is a need for “constructive dialogue” between cultures. As St. John Paul II noted in 2001 after the events of, 9/11, “Rather than dwelling on what separates them, people of different cultures and religions must learn to respect one another on the basis of the many fundamental truths and values which they share.… And given that Islam and Christianity worship the one God, Creator of heaven and earth, there is ample room for agreement and cooperation between them.” Few have lived this truth as fully as Christian de Chergé and his brothers.
Bob French, a frequent contributor to The Word Among Us, writes from Alexandria, Virginia.