The witness of the Trappist Monks of Tibhirine
by : Armand Veilleux, ocso
On the night of March 26-27, 1996, seven monks from the Trappist monastery of our Lady of Atlas at Tibhirine, in Algeria, were kidnapped by a group of armed men. One month later a message attributed to an Islamist group claimed the responsibility for their kidnapping, offering to exchange them for Islamist prisoners. Two months later another message attributed to the same group announced their death. They were decapitated and only their heads were found, not their bodies. After a funeral Mass at the cathedral of Algiers, their remains were buried in the cemetery of their monastery at Tibhirine. After their death, the Testament of Father Christian de Chergé, who was the Prior of the community, was made public. That text, which was addressed by Father Christian to his family, is one of the most profound and most beautiful spiritual writings of the 20th century. It had, and it continues to have a great influence, in the Muslim as well as in the Christian world.
Two years ago a film was made, based on their lives, or rather the last few years of their lives, revealing their relationship with the local Muslim population. The title of the film was Of Gods and Men, and it has had an enormous impact in all the countries of the world where it was shown. It is not a documentary. But although it is a fiction, it is based on real facts. And it conveys extremely well the human and spiritual experience of that small community during the last few years before their death, and how that experience was rooted in the local Algerian context.
Anyone who sees the film without knowing the history of the community may think that they were simply a small community of French monks who had been living in Algeria for a little while, and who stubbornly chose to stay there, even when a situation of civil war had developed, and who did so out of solidarity with the local population. In reality their community had been part of the Algerian people and of the Algerian Church for more than half a century. In order to understand their witness, we need to replace it in the history of Algeria and of the Church in Algeria.
The Church in Algeria
There was a flourishing Christian Church in North Africa in the time of Augustine of Hippo, but it was a Latin Church, the church of the Roman invader and it disappeared rapidly after the crumbling of the Roman Empire under the invasions of the Barbarians, even before the Arab invasions.
Several centuries later Christianity returned to Algeria with the invading French army, in 1830. The Kerchaoua mosque, one of the most important mosques of Algiers, was immediately transformed into a Christian cathedral, with the canons of the infantry firing as the cross and the French flag were raised on the minaret. That event signaled the type of Christian presence that would last more or less unchanged for about a century. It was the Church of French settlers among a Muslim population. A first monastic foundation was made in Algeria, at Staouëli in that context, in 1843. Although it developed rapidly and grew into a large successful community, it did not last. It was closed in 1904.
The monastery of Tibhirine, which was founded in 1934 was of a completely different style. It started as a refuge for a few monks from Slovenia who were fleeing persecution in their country, and it was soon assumed as a regular monastic foundation by the French community of Aiguebelle. It was a poor, humble and small group of foreigners who began to live simply amid a poor Arab population. Right from the beginning the monks developed a close relationship with the population, in a situation of mutual respect that rapidly became mutual love.
The type of presence of the Christian Church in Algeria has already begun to change some years before, with the coming of Cardinal Lavigerie, the founder of the missionaries knows as the “White Fathers”. But that type of presence was altered more radically, some twelve years after the arrival of the Trappist monks, with the coming of bishop Duval – later on Cardinal Duval -- to Algeria. Duval was appointed bishop of Constantine in 1946 and then of Algiers in 1954, during the war that led to the independence of the country, a few years later. He was above all a pastor, but a pastor who constantly analyzed the political situation in the light of the Gospel. He constantly condemned all forms of violence – that of the colonial army as well as that of the Algerian fighting for their independence. He refused to accept a society where there was a small minority exercising power over the great majority. He believed in the brotherly cohabitation of the Arabs and the foreigners, of Christians and Muslims. He was not an intellectual, and he did not care too much for the type of theological dialogue à la Massignon that showed the theological and religious consonances between the Gospel and the Koran. What he believed in was concrete, basic human solidarity in all aspects of human life between Christians and Muslims, even in a situation where Christians had become a tiny minority. To leave Algeria, after the independence of the country and after almost all the settlers had left, because the Church could no longer be powerful and influential, was not an option for him. He led the small remnant of his Church through the independence period, acquired Algerian nationality, and was widely respected till the time of his death a few days after that of the monks of Tibhirine. It is interesting to know that, after independence, when Arabic became the official language of the country, many of the new political elite learned the Arabic language from the Catholic missionaries!
Because the monks of Tibhirine had developed such bonds of brotherhood with the local population their monastery survived the war of independence and was able to continue in existence after the country had become an officially Muslim country, and after almost all the foreigners had left. Nevertheless, since there was no longer any hope for local recruitment – because any proselytism and any conversion to Christianity was prohibited by the Law of the country – the Trappist Order decided to close the monastery in 1963. That decision was communicated to cardinal Duval, by the Abbot General of the Order, in St. Peter’s Basilica, one morning at the opening of that day’s session of the Vatican Council. The Cardinal reacted very strongly; and for various reasons, including the Abbot General’s unexpected death on the same evening, the monastery was not closed. The community continued to maintain its excellent relationship with the local population. If the presence of the monks of Tibhirine in post-colonial and Muslim Algeria was so important for Cardinal Duval, it was because they embodied in their way of life the type of Church he wanted for Algeria.
But the community had become very small and it was reinforced by several volunteers who came from different monasteries of the Order. New vocations also came and one of them was Father Christian de Chergé. He came from a military family and had spent part of his childhood in Algeria, where his father was stationed and he learned from his mother how to respect the religious practices of the Muslims. Later on he served as a young officer in Algeria, during the independence war, and at some point had his life saved by a Muslim who lost his own life for saving him. This was a turning point in his life. He became a priest in Paris, but decided later on to return to Algeria as a monk of Tibhirine. But before going to Tibhirine he spent some years at the Pontifical Institute for Islamic Studies in Rome, where he acquired a good knowledge of Islam and a great esteem for its spirituality.
A few years later Father Christian became the Prior of the community and he established an ongoing dialogue with a small group of profoundly devout Muslims, especially a group of Sufis. A dialogue group called the Ribat es Salam met at the monastery. Tibhirine is well known for that aspect of dialogue, and rightly so, but there was another more important dialogue that was common to the whole community, and that existed at Tibhirine even long before Father Christian came. It was that brotherly cohabitation -- so important for Cardinal Duval -- the sharing of work and of small material possessions, the friendship with neighbors, the participation in their important celebrations, the attention to everyone’s need. Those simple monks were authentic witnesses to Christian love. And that is the main aspect of their witness or “martyrdom”. They were “martyrs” (=witnesses) by the way they lived more than by the manner of their death. The local population, that was composed of simple, ordinary Muslims, not of radical Islamists, saw them for what they were first of all a group of men dedicated to God and to prayer, and saw their monastery as a place of contemplative prayer.
I knew all of them personally. But there is one that is particularly dear to me : the medical doctor, Brother Luke (who is one of the main figure in the film). He was the “heart” of the community, where he had been for half a century at the time of his death. He was a man who experienced violence all his life and manifested love all the time. He was born in 1914, at the beginning of the First World War. As a child, therefore, he knew the tragedy of war and mostly the difficulties and suffering that followed the war. He wanted to serve mankind and therefore he became a physician. Soon after the end of his medical studies, however he entered the abbey of Aiguebelle, in France, as a lay brother. Although he had a good intellectual formation he chose to be a simple laybrother. This was at the beginning of the Second World War, and he volunteered to go the prison camps in Germany to offer medical service to the prisoners, and mostly to allow a young father of a family to be released. He spent the war as a prisoner, tending to the medical need of the prisoners and even, occasionally, to some German soldiers. When he was freed in 1945 by American soldiers he then returned to his monastery. Soon after, he volunteered to go to the monastery of Tibhirine in Algeria, where he stayed for the next fifty years, till the time of his death in 1996.
When Brother Luke arrived at Tibhirine, the community was a small poor community among a poor population. Actually the village of Tibhirine had developed by the gathering of an Arab population around the monastery. Brother Luke opened a dispensary for the neighbors and offered his medical service to everyone. Till the end of his life he took care of everyone who came, irrespective of nationality or religion. He was highly respected and loved by everyone. With the passing of time this became true of the whole community. They were respected and loved by everyone around them, because they respected and loved everyone. That was the reason why it was possible for the community to stay in Algeria after the war of independence when the French settlers had to leave and when the country had become Muslim. Brother Luke was made briefly a hostage during that war of independence, in the early sixties, but he was rapidly released when he was recognized by rebels who had been attended by him. Toward the end of Brother Luke’s life, when there were hospitals and dispensaries in the country, people continued to come to brother Luke, not only because he was a very good doctor, but also, and perhaps most of all, in order to receive a word of wisdom.
The Civil war of the ‘90ies
Then, there was a radical change in the Algerian scene in the early nineties. The population had become disillusioned with the political party, controlled by the army, which had led the country for a quarter of a century. At end of 1991 an Islamist political party, the FIS (Front Islamique du Salut) won the first round of the legislative elections and was clearly set to win the second round. The Generals of the Army interrupted the electoral process, imposing a military dictatorship. Thereupon a long period of extreme violence began in Algeria, some of which must certainly be attributed to more and more radicalized Islamic armed groups and some of which must also certainly be attributed to the counterterrorist techniques of the army. The ordinary people had to choose between those two forms of violence.
Some in the Church took sides by approving the interruption of the electoral process as a necessary means to save Algeria from what they saw as the danger of an Islamic domination and the imposition of the sharia. The monks of Tibhirine did not choose. They felt they had to keep a brotherly relationship with everyone, and first of all with the ordinary people who were themselves hostages in that power struggle. They wanted to be brothers to everyone including the two main groups in the conflict – the “brothers of the mountain” as they called the rebel groups and the “brothers of the plain” as they called the army. That was unforgivable. And they paid for it with their lives.
They were not the only victims of that violence. Many who believed in peace and worked for peace were killed, Muslim Imams as well as Christian priests and religious. Many other witnesses to Christian love gave their lives in that same period. Each one of them was very well integrated into the Arab population and each one was killed in the place where he/she exercised that concrete love, for example as a teacher or as a nurse. It was clear that it was that proximity and that brotherhood that was considered unforgivable by some. Most of all, we have to be aware that these seven monks were only a few among 200.000 Algerians who were victims of the same civil war, of the same mad violence. I find the fact that only the heads of the monks were recovered. It means that their bodies are somewhere in the ground of Algeria, mixed with those of all the other victims from which they certainly did not want to be separated. Our brothers felt that they had to condemn violence from whatever side it came. A few days before the kidnapping of the brothers, Father Christian gave a retreat to a group of lay people in Algeria. In one of his talks he said that the “Thou shall not kill” applied to everyone, to the army as well as to the militants. At that moment he probably signed his death warrant.
Whether the monks were killed by radical Islamic militants -- what is the official position of the Algerian government -- or whether they were killed by the Security Service of the army -- as I am convinced they were -- does not affect in any way their being authentic “martyrs”. As I mentioned before, they were martyrs not because of the circumstances of their death, but because of the way they lived. And, obviously, it was the way they lived the Gospel that led someone – whoever it was – to get rid of them.
The last three years of the life of that monastic community of Tibhirine were the most intense and the most beautiful. The film Of Gods and Men shows precisely what the monks lived during those three years, how they related to the local population, to the army and to the “brothers of the mountain” during that short period. It shows mostly how the community was constantly faced with the question: “Should we leave or should we stay ?” and how they arrived at a consensus in their decision to stay, through an honest and at times difficult process of community discernment. One remark is however necessary. The film shows one long process of discernment, over a three year period, leading to an achieved consensus. In reality the brothers went through that whole process – and that consensus --six or seven times during that period. Every time some of their friends were assassinated, or every time a new danger manifested itself, they did again that discernment process and arrived each time at the same conclusion.
Why did they stay? In fidelity to their monastic vocation that implies a vow of stability; but also because they felt that it was a necessary form of solidarity with the local Church and mostly with the local population with whom they had established deep bonds of love and brotherhood – a population that was threatened as much as they were but did not have the choice to leave. It was also, not only for themselves but also for the people around them, a way to affirm what Father Christian called the “right to difference”, that is the right to not to choose between two types of violence when everyone, on both camps, wanted them to take stands.
I mentioned a few minutes ago, that most of them had come to Tibhirine as volunteers. This means that they had received their monastic formation in different monasteries. Furthermore, each one of them had a particular history before entering the monastery and all of them were very strong personalities. To make a “community” out of such a bunch of strong characters seemed humanly impossible. But during those last three years, they became a very strongly united community. I had the grace of visiting them just two months before they were kidnapped, precisely with the purpose to review with them – at their own request -- all their decisions and their journey of the three preceding years. I can witness that I never met a community so profoundly united. That community was a ripe fruit.
It was an authentic Christian community, that is, not a group of people who had chosen each other, but a group of persons who had chosen the same vocation, or rather who had all been called to the same mission. Their unity was not reached through human techniques, but through prayer and attentive discernment of the manifestation of God’s presence in their life. That discernment included personal and common prayer, but also honest and at times almost brutal discussion. (Remember the moment when one of the brothers tells the prior “We have not elected you to make all the decisions alone”!)
Monastic life is basically a life of communion. It is first of all a life of communion with God through contemplative prayer. That communion with God is expressed in the communion among brothers . If that communion is authentic it will not be closed on itself but will be open to people outside the community. The monks of Tibhirine lived all the aspects of that communion, and it was beautifully expressed in the “Testament” written by Father Christian, which I mentioned before. If you wish, I would like now to look as a few of the aspects of that experience of communion through some passages of that beautiful text.
The Testament of Father Christian de Chergé
The text bears two dates: Algiers, 1st December 1993 - Tibhirine, 1st January 1994. This requires a bit of explanation. On November 30th, 1993, Christian went to Algiers to meet one of the monks who was returning from France. Since the plane was delayed they stayed in Algiers for the night. That very day the GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé) had called on all the foreigners to leave the country or face death. Father Christian wrote the first draft of his Testament that evening.
Then, on December 15, a group of 14 Croat workers are killed by the Islamists at Tamezguida, a few miles from the monastery. Most of them were Catholics and used to come to Mass at the Monastery. Ten days later a large group of rebels came to the monastery during Christmas night, demanding various things that the monks refuse to give. After the visit – well described in the film, the monks had a long discussion about staying or leaving. At first, almost all thought that they should leave. They gave themselves 24 hours to pray over it. When they gathered again, after those 24 hours of prayer, all had decided to stay. It is after those dramatic events, on the 1st of January, that Christian put the final touch to his testament. It was placed in a sealed envelope sent to his family, and it was opened on Pentecost Day 1996, after his death. Here is the beginning of the text:
If it should happen one day... that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family to remember that my life was given to God and to this country.
There are several elements of great significance in that short sentence. Father Christian wants his community, his Church, his family to remember something. His life has not been a solitary relationship only between him and God. He is aware of belonging to a community (my community); to a Church (my Church) and to a natural family (my family). All those relationships were very important to him. But more important was the fact that his life did not belong to him. It had been given. And it had been given not only to God but also to this country, that is, Algeria. Everything here is very incarnated. He does not own his life; he does not own his community, his church, his family; he has renounced them; but they remain important for him. He is, therefore, a free man, a poor and a pure of heart who can see God.
That radical detachment was not something done one day once for all, and done alone. It was a common experience he had done with the rest of his community. In their last circular letter to their friends, in December 1995, the brothers of Tibhirine said, speaking of a possible death: "the violent death of one of us or of all of us together would be simply the logical consequence of all the forms of renunciation we have already done: of family, country, community in order to follow Christ..."
Because of all these encompassing forms of renunciation, the real community of Father Christian and of his brothers was made up not only of the twelve monks of Tibhirine and Fès (which was an annex house of Tibhirine) but also of the members of their respective families, and of all the Algerian people, whom they loved.
Christian loves them so much that he cannot desire martyrdom, since this would be to desire that someone whom he loves should commit a terrible crime against the God of life.
I don't 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 be called, perhaps, the "grace of martyrdom", to owe this to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.
Someone who has reached that level of purity of heart is a real contemplative. We must now read the most important section of Christian's text:
"... my most insistent curiosity will then be set free. This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills, immerse my gaze in that of the Father to contemplate with him His children of Islam as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, playing with the differences."
In everything that has been said and written about interreligious dialogue, I don't think there is anything whatsoever that has reached such a depth. On the one hand there is this contemplative attitude that wants to see through God's eyes and contemplate all his children of Islam (we could add: of Buddhism, of Hinduism, of Israel, etc.) as HE – God -- sees them, in all their shining beauty. On the other hand there is this beautiful vision of a playful God who takes a secret joy in establishing communion, refashioning in each one the original likeness (His likeness), playing with the differences. (The background image of this is certainly the passage of the book of Genesis where God is described as fashioning man out of clay, like a child playing in the sand, and breathing into his nostrils his own breath of life, his own likeness.)
Then, Father Christian thanks God for his life:
"This life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wished it entirely...In this THANK YOU which is said for everything in my life, from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you, O my friends of this place..."
Then comes the most mysterious and most beautiful part of the text. At the beginning of the Testament there was a kind of sub title which it is almost impossible to translate in any language: "Quand un À Dieu est envisagé" The French word À Dieu is much stronger than the English equivalent "Farewell". Then there is a play with the French word envisagé; which means "envisaged", contemplated, but can also mean, in the line of thought of Lévinas (whom Father Christian was reading at that time), en-visagé: that is something that has received a visage, or has been transformed into a visage.
With this in mind we can understand the final part of the message, where Christian speaks to the person who might take his life:
And you too, my last minute friend, who would not have known what you were doing.. Yes, for you too I say this Thank You and this A Dieu "en visagé de toi": that is, commending you to the God who has taken a visage in you (or in whose face I see God).
This capacity of seeing God's face, God's incarnation, in the person who is slitting your throat is certainly the fruit of a profound contemplative life lived in deep relationship with a group of brothers, with a Church and with the whole human family.
The community of O.L. of Atlas at Tibhirine was an ordinary small monastic community, living a life of solitude, prayer, work and silence. When it became dangerous for foreigners and especially for Christians to stay in Algeria, and when they were all invited to leave, several people said to the monks: "You should leave. We understand that missionaries want to stay in order to continue their work of evangelization; but there is no reason for you to stay here, since you can continue your life of prayer in any other place. To pray here or to pray elsewhere is just the same thing." Such a reasoning did not make any sense to these monks. Because they had lived that life of prayer for so long together and in that place, not only had they become deeply united as a community, but they had created deep bonds with the whole local Church. They had also developed deep bonds of friendship with the local population, to the point of letting the local Muslims use a building of the monastery as the village mosche.
And the story has not stopped with their death. Because of what these very humble and simple monks lived, and because of the way they died, millions of people, including millions of Algerian Muslims, have also seen something of God's face in them.
The great success of the film Of Gods and Men and its reception by people of all nationalities and religions is itself something extraordinary. It is a witness to the fact that the values that were at the heart of those simple monks and that are ºwell conveyed by the film are values that are important for men and women of all times and all places.