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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Monks of Tibhirine

Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria

John W. Kiser

St. Martin's Press


The nearest to the faithful are those who say "We are Christians." That is because there are priests and monks among them and because they are free of pride.

—KORAN 5:82

From a certain angle, the Basilica of Notre Dame d'Afrique looks like a giant camel on its haunches, contemplating the Aleppo pine-and eucalyptus-covered hills that form an amphitheater around the port of Algiers. Its tall neck is formed by an elegant Byzantine tower connected to a large redbrick body, surmounted by an enormous gilded cupola that for over a hundred years was a beacon for Christian Europe to come and civilize the land the Arabs called the maghreb—"where the sun sets." The newcomers did their work well. Frenchmen sailing into the Bay of Algiers always experienced a sense of homecoming and breathtaking beauty. Algiers was the Nice of North Africa, France's Mediterranean pearl, with promenades along the sea, bustling cafés, beautiful gardens, elegant women, and imperial architecture. La Grande Poste, la rue de la République, la place Delacroix provided a reassuring sense of familiarity.

In the late spring of 1996, Algiers looked like a scabrous bag lady. Once admired for the brilliant snowiness of the whitewashed Casbah rising up the Sahel Hills, "La Blanche," as she was formerly known, now reeked of decay and failure, with crumbling, pockmarked buildings, ubiquitous stray cats, and putrid, garbage-filled streets. Churches that had been mosques before the French arrived were again mosques. Notre-Dame d'Afrique is one of the last citadels of a Christian presence that measures itself in hundreds in a country of 29 million Muslims.

Sunday afternoon, June 2, mourners had gathered on the steps to watch seven coffins being carried into the basilica. There were simple peasants in skullcaps, sunbaked workers in ill-fitting dress jackets, and a scattering of European men and women. Each casket was covered with a blanket of red roses, supported by four military cadets in the traditional ceremonial dress of the French fireman: white spats, gray uniform with red stripes down the pants, topped by a silver helmet of medieval proportions, polished to a mirror finish. Soldiers with Kalashnikovs patrolled the area around the cathedral and kept watch from rooftops. Killing people who came to the funerals of their victims was a favorite tactic of the terrorists.

Inside the massive rotunda, the caskets were placed next to yet one more. Monsignor Léon-Etienne Duval, many would say later, was also a casualty of the massacre. The much-loved ninety-two-year-old cardinal had struggled for fifty years for reconciliation between Europeans and Arabs. The monks were "the lungs" of the Church in Algeria, he liked to say. Their small community in the Atlas Mountains provided spiritual oxygen to Christians and Muslims alike. When he learned that the kidnapped monks had been executed, he told those at his bedside that he felt "crucified," and died a week later.

Behind the altar stood the "black Virgin"—named for the color of her aged bronze skin—gazing down from on top of an azure blue-tiled tabernacle. The words PRAY FOR US AND THE MUSLIMS were painted on the cupola above her head. That day, her prayers were needed more than ever. The Trappist abbot general, Father Bernardo Olivera, was one of many churchmen who addressed the congregation, but his words were the most heartfelt.

What can a monk say about his brother monks? I know that our order was founded on our commitment to silence, work, and praise of God. But we know there are times to speak as well as times to be quiet. After fifty years of silence, our seven brothers—Christian, Luc, Christophe, Célestin, Bruno, Michel and Paul—today have become spokesmen for all the stifled voices and anonymous individuals who have given their lives for a more humane world. Our seven monks lend their voices today to me as well. They, and others like them, were living manifestations of the good news of the Gospels: a life freely given in the spirit of love is never a life lost, but one found again in Him who is Life….

They showed that we must enter into the world of others, be that "other" a Christian or a Muslim. If "the other" does not exist, there can be no love of "the other." Let us learn to go beyond ourselves and to be enriched by those who are different…. Our brothers lives were the fruit of this Church in Algeria and of the many Algerians who over the years welcomed them and valued their presence. To the Church of Algeria and to you Algerians, fellow worshippers of one God, I say: A heartfelt thank you for the respect and the love you have shown to our monks."

Other homilies were given by Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, who had come from Paris; Archbishop Henry Teissier of Algiers; and Cardinal Francis Arinze, Pope John Paul's personal envoy. When the service ended, senior officials of the Algerian government, members of the diplomatic corps, and hundreds of ordinary Algerians in the overflowing congregation filed past the photograph set on each monk's coffin. Many who had known them personally embraced their pictures and whispered tearful good-byes to the smiling faces. Outside, one mourner was overheard saying that the ceremony was too grand and pompous for the men who had lived so humbly among simple peasants.

After the service, a reporter from the Parisian weekly L'Express had questions for Pierre Claverie, the outspoken square-jawed bishop of the neighboring diocese of Oran. "The French government told its citizens to leave three years ago. What sense is there for the Church to stay in the face of so much danger? Are you being martyrs?" he asked.

"No. There are certain groups here who do not accept us," Bishop Claverie replied, "but the Church is Algerian, not French, and has existed under Algerian law since 1964. The government can cancel our visas anytime it wishes, but it doesn't because Christians are respected here even though we are a tiny community. Anyone who wants is free to leave. 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."

Back in France, memorial services were being held throughout the country. Many questions hung in the air: Why were the monks killed? What kind of Islam murders godly men in God's name? Why were Christians tending a Muslim flock?

THE MONKS OF TIBHIRINE Copyright © 2002 by John W. Kiser