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Christians in the Muslim World

“Let’s Wait for Tomorrow to Go Away”

Those seven monks who chose to remain in an Algeria tormented by violence, bearing witness to the possibility of a dialogue with Muslims

Last update: 2018-02-02 14:43:25

[This article is published in Oasis n. 18. Click here to buy a copy of this issue of Oasis and here to subscribe to the journal]

 

 

The monastery of Tibhirine – the gardens – has these prophetic words on its coat of arms: “Sign on the Mountains”. Indeed, it is 1,000 feet above sea level on the spurs of the Algerian Atlas, where the view is broad and the very beautiful sunsets made Brother Luc, the doctor who had lived in those gardens for fifty years, even during the harshest moments of the civil war; say: “Let’s wait for tomorrow’s sunset to go away!”. [1]

 

 

The most beautiful and deeply rooted plants of those gardens, which even today do not cease to provoke wonder and to generate questions, are the places of the lives and the graves of the seven brothers who were killed in 1996.

 

 

Every day they are visited by tens of people from every horizon, but above all Algerians and Muslims: Tibhirine has become more than ever before a sign on the mountains, an emblem and symbol of the mysterious reasons for which one can live and one can die, for love’s sake, in full freedom.

 

 

Only the decapitated heads of the brothers make fecund the land of the monastery, whereas their bodies, buried nobody knows where, as happened with so many other innocent victims of the civil war, make the whole of Algeria a great reliquary. Thanks to these men of God it is still possible to believe in the triumph of life over death and of love over hatred.

 

 

These gardens were planted in Algerian soil in the middle of the 1930s. At that time France could rely in its overseas territories upon the presence of a million settlers who for the most part were Catholics.

 

 

The monastery of Tibhirine was born and grew for these Christians. Conceived of like the great monasteries of the West, Tibhirine was built as a fortress, at the centre of a great estate, where the monks prayed, worked and lived in a simple and fraternal life, in contact with, and at the service of, above all their coreligionists, but also giving material help and indicating to the habitants of the locality, of Berber origins, a rational and modern way of engaging in agriculture.

 

 

For about thirty years, amidst all the changing events that mark the lives of all communities, Tibhirine grew or shrunk as an extension of a French monastery in the land of Algeria.

 

 

 

 

 

Not only guests, but guests who were friends

 

 

The war of independence and the end of colonial power produced a great turning point: Algeria was emptied of its settlers. The great exodus of Christians changed not so much the deep heart as the face of the monastic community and its reasons for staying in the land of Algeria.

 

 

The hope of native vocations came to a halt and the monks were guests in a land that they have seen as belonging to their homeland. Love for the place and for their brothers which characterised their monastic life, which was lived according to the Benedictine Rules, led the monks to remain in a condition of poverty and weakness, supporting the lean Algerian Church, which was an almost invisible drop of water in the great Muslim sea, ‘a Cistercian wreck in the ocean of Islam’, [2] as Father Christian put it.

 

 

The new situation, with its consequent instability, led the community to near extinction: a reinforcement through new arrivals from French monasteries in 1964 and the dispensary of Brother Luc, which was open to all sick people who came (‘the devil as well if he comes’, he said), allowed the monastery new growth.

 

 

The gardens of Tibhirine, with the vast cloister of more than 300 hectares, were reduced to simple orchards of twelve hectares that were cultivated together with the neighbouring people. The long history of nearness to the people of the locality made the Christian monks not only guests but also guests who were friends.

 

 

The elderly brothers, who had persevered and were known by everybody, died one by one but remained always close to the inhabitants of the village which had grown up near to the monastery. In the monastic cemetery they were at rest under rough gravestones that bore only their names and the dates of their coming into and leaving this world.

 

 

Other brothers arrived: a few, but highly motivated, and the community became increasingly stable and rooted in the locality. The election of Christian de Chergé as prior of the community in 1984 marked a turning point and involved a leadership that was decidedly directed towards dialogue and an understanding of the religious inheritance of their Muslim neighbours.

 

 

Fr. Christian explained this relationship of deep friendship that was gradually developed: “People praying amidst other people praying… nothing could be explained outside a constant communal presence and the faithfulness of each member to humble daily reality, from the gate of the gardens, from the kitchen to the lectio divina and in to the liturgy of the hours. The dialogue that thus came to be constructed has its forms, which are essentially characterised by the fact that we never take the initiative. I would like to define it as being existential. It is the outcome of a long ‘living together’ and of shared concerns, ones that are at times very concrete. This means that it is rarely of a strictly theological character. We have, rather, the tendency to flee from diatribes of this kind, which we see as being limited. Essential dialogue, therefore, that is to say concerning the material and the spiritual at one and the same time, the daily and the eternal, as a demonstration of how true it is that the man or the woman who calls on us can be welcomed only in their concrete and mysterious reality of their being children of God, ‘created first in Christ? (Eph 2:10). We would cease to be Christians – and also simply men – if we were to mutilate the other as regards his hidden dimension so as to encounter him solely ‘man to man’, that is to say in a humanity emptied of any reference to God, of any personal relationship and thus alone with the Totally-Other, deprived of any way out to an unknown life beyond”. [3]

 

 

The key word of the monks of Tibhirine was thus “presence”. A presence that was friendly and fraternal, trusting that they would also be welcomed by their neighbours. The encounter with the other took place in daily life: it was a dialogue of life, inter-culturality and inter-religiosity put into practice, in an exchange of gifts which upheld each person in his or her own identity.

 

 

 

 

 

Seven Brothers

 

 

Who were these men thirsty for the absolute, aware that they were carrying a treasure in vases of clay and were ready to discover it in the hearts, in the lives and in the religion of their neighbours as well?

 

 

Il cast di Uomini di Dio

 

 

A few words are sufficient to characterise the physiognomy of these seven brothers who were so different from each other and so united in the face of danger and death. Through the description of them made by one of the survivors, Fr. Jean-Pierre Schumacher, here is a draft of such a description. [4]

 

 

     

  • Father Christian De Chergé What struck me in him was his inner passion for the discovery of the Muslim soul and to live this communion with them and with God, albeit remaining truly a monk and a Christian. He wanted to be taken by everything in Islam which is a seed of the Word, a sign of His active presence and of His breath as a creator, to be as near as possible to his Muslim brothers: to go to God with them, but in Jesus Christ, in his Spirit and as an authentic member of his Church. Christian had to reconcile this personal appeal with that of the community, which was also a bearer of a mission of presence in a Muslim land.
  •  

  • Brother Luke He was not a priest, he was a brother. We could confide in him because he was full of wisdom. When we had a problem or a difficulty in our relationship with a brother, the first thing we did was to go to see Brother Luc because we well know how he would have responded. During our meetings, even during the period of tension and fear, he always had some words to make us laugh. He was valuable for our common life…As a medical doctor, he was in the dispensary for the whole of the day, and in addition he was responsible for the kitchen!’
  •  

  • Father Christophe  What has stayed in my mind as regards Christophe during the last two years is his inner torment as regards the ‘Amen’ that he had to pronounce, which was so difficult to say but which he did not want to avoid and which he ended up by taking upon himself out of his love for Jesus who dwelt in him completely. He allowed himself to be led towards likeness with Christ and towards his Paschal Mystery. All of this was in line with his burning soul, directed forwards, concerned to abandon himself to love of Christ, of his brothers, of the poor…with his weakness, his frailties.
  •  

  • Father Bruno What characterised Bruno was his calm, his reserved, smiling and affable character, despite the impression that he gave when first encountered of being severe and in a hurry. The Superior of Fes, he loved the simple and hidden life that was led in this small monastery. In Fes, in the spring, a part of the garden and the walkway reserved to guests became a feast of colours thanks to the flowers that he grew: this was an expression of his secret soul.
  •  

  • Brother Michel A silent, poor and humble man, he lived in simplicity the giving of himself to God and the community. His search for God in the monastery was inseparably linked to the search for the soul of Islam, to be in communion with his Muslim brothers and to offer himself to them. By some brothers of the community and by many guests he was seen as a saint, but I doubt that he realised this…
  •  

  • Father Célestin The foundation and the source of the spiritual life of Célestin was his link with Christ through his priesthood and religious profession, the educational role that he had performed for twenty years with people on the streets (drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes), and his tie of friendship with an Algerian partisan that he had saved during his military service as a male nurse in Algeria and, through him, with the whole of the Algerian people.
  •  

  • Brother Paul Joyous, affable, ready to help and with golden hands, Brother Paul was loved by everyone, by his neighbours, by the country folk associated with the work of the monks. He did not know Arabic but he managed to make himself understood with signs and above all with works. A realist, he had no illusions about the political and economic situation of Algeria: he was aware of what could happen at any moment. What a mystery it was that he joined the brothers out of faithfulness to God, to them and to Algeria precisely on the eve of the kidnapping! 
  •  

 

 

 

 

 

The unleashing of violence

 

 

The Algerians had obtained their independence at a heavy price in 1962 and had then chosen to follow the path of socialism, but without achieving the hoped-for results. In 1988 the situation of deterioration in which the country found itself had provoked disorders in Algeria and in other cities, fostering the political rise of a strict Islam which offered itself as a solution to all problems: it preached virtue, helped the poor, and declared war on a corrupt West.

 

 

The whole of the region of Médéa, where the monastery was located, was a feud of the FIS (the Islamic Salvation Front) which in 1990 had won the elections in most of the communes of Algeria. All the neighbours of the monks, Berber country folk who were very poor and very religious, had voted for them by an overwhelming majority. ‘It is the party of God’, they said.

 

 

On 11 January 1992 the army intervened with a coup d’état: it annulled the elections and dissolved the winning party. Armed groups then came into existence: the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS) and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). Civilians were also attacked and it was suggested to foreigners that they should leave the country. Algeria fell into chaos and into civil war – a pitiless struggle to keep or win power.

 

 

On Christmas Eve 1993 the brothers of Tibhirine received a “visit” in the monastery from the emir of the GIA, Sayyah Attiya, with a group of another five armed men. They had come to ask for medicines and money and wanted to take Brother Luc, the doctor, with them.

 

 

Christian de Chergé, running many risks, opposed these requests. A few days earlier twelve Croats who worked on a building site had been murdered in Tamesguida, a few kilometres from the monastery. The brothers knew them because they used to come to the monastery on feast days. Finally, the emir went away but he promised to come back. The pass word that he laid down to be received with his men was “Monsieur Christian”.

 

 

Fr. Christophe left the basement where he had been hiding when he heard the ringing of the bells that announced the Holy Mass of midnight, amazed that the brothers were still alive. The monks went to church to celebrate the night of the Nativity as though it was a new birth for them. For them the question now posed itself of their departure. After a great deal of reflection, they freely decided to stay, at least for the moment: how could they leave their lives, the country, their Muslim neighbours and the Church of Algeria? But around them was unleashed violence and they knew that the possibility of a violent death was not out of the question. Fr. Christian narrated the experience of Christmas Eve in the following way:

 

 

After the Christmas visit, I needed fifteen days, three weeks to return from my death. Death – you can be sure – is something you accept very quickly, but then to get back on your feet you need a great deal of time. Afterwards I said to myself: “those people, that man with whom I had such a tense dialogue…what prayer can I say for him? I cannot ask God: kill him. But I can ask: disarm him”. Then I asked myself: “Do I have the right to ask, disarm him, if I do not begin by asking: disarm me and disarm us in the community?” Now this is my prayer which I confide to you in all simplicity. [5]

 

 

Brother Luc prayed to the universal Prayer of the Holy Mass ‘Lord, give us the grace to die without hatred in our hearts’.: [6] Brother Michel confided to Fr. Christophe: ‘It is no longer as it once was. Ever since ‘they’ came, I have had no strength’. [7]

 

 

 

 

 

An unpublished work by Fr. Christian

 

 

Fr. Christian had begun the composition of his will before the massacre of the Croats and he had finished it before the Christmas visit of the mujahidin: it is an admirable text, very well known, which will remain as a masterpiece of contemporary religious literature.

 

 

But the will was accompanied by a note, which has not hitherto been published, to Christophe who was the second Superior of the community: “For Brother Christophe, if it should happen that…”. The emir Sayyah Attiya had left behind him as a password “Monsieur Christian” and Christian, as a the Superior, thought that he was the only target of the Islamists. In this note, which is extremely important and moving, he at first gave some telephone numbers of people who should be informed (the prefect, the gendarmes, the bishop), if it should happen that…and then wrote:

 

 

Measures should be taken for an immediate evacuation, unless something else should be done, and for the surveillance of the places that are abandoned. The data on the brothers, and on me as well, are to be found in the document holder. I think with love of the future of Mohamed, of his family, of our Ali and of the country folk who work in association with us. If I meet a brutal death, I would like to remain amongst them, buried in the atrium, on the opposite side of the foundation cross, of the grave of our Father Aubin. My mother should feel sweetness towards me. To everyone and to each one I ask mercy and the alms of a remembrance in the Eucharist. May God continue the work that has been begun here! I thank him for having allowed me, I believe, to consent to the GIFT for EVERYONE. Through you. I embrace everyone, THANK YOU for so much trust.: [8]

 

 

 

 

 

War correspondence

 

 

The spread of hatred, of fear and of madness grew and cost the lives of about 200,000 people, amongst whom also Christian men and women religious. At the end of August 1996 nineteen religious were killed during the civil war, amongst whom – the last – the Bishop of Oran, Pierre Claverie.

 

 

The correspondence of Brother Luc, more than so many other words, allows us to see the climate of those tragic years and the journey of self-giving that he had arrived at.

 

 

Here the situation has become disquieting and perhaps in the future it will be dangerous…Death…would be witness rendered to the absolute of God. I am like an old overcoat, consumed, with holes, with patches, but inside my soul still sings. In a little while it will be Christmas. A liberator was born for us. Since 1 December an ultimatum of the GIA has been addressed to all foreigners to leave the country (17 December 1993).

 

 

Here our situation is troubling and dangerous. We live in a climate of violence. We are isolated, we are alone, but the Lord is with us. Despite the difficult situation we persist in remaining in Faith and Charity. What can happen to us? To go to see God and be flooded with His tenderness. The Lord is the great merciful one and the great forgiver (9 January 1994).

 

 

When you read this letter, Lent will be about to finish and the light of Easter will begin to shine forth. Every year, with emotion and wonder, I see the first almond trees in blossom. Spring, for man, for a Christian, consists of offering his life to God, an offering that one should renew every day during the course of the years. But at the end of the road there is Easter with its Light and its Joy. Here the violence continues (6 March 1994).

 

 

Thank you for following us in your thoughts amidst the events of Algeria. A man religious and a woman religious have been murdered. There is no truce as regards the violence. Here we are seven men religious and we go on. We are like a bird on a branch, ready to fly towards the sky! A new heaven and a new earth. Wherever we go, wherever we are, God accompanies us. God is not against us, but with us. When we disembark from this planet, still immerged all of us in our earthly worries, we will not be afraid because in crossing the anxiety-inducing threshold of death we will find Christ who will take us into the house of the Father (25 May 1994).

 

 

Recently I was reflecting on that thought of Pascal: ‘Men never do evil so completely and so joyously as when they do it for religious reasons’ (June 1994).

 

 

Here it is very hot and in addition a fire has been started on the mountains in front of the monastery. The violence persists and becomes worse. On 11 July there were twelve deaths in Algiers. I do not think that a dialogue is possible. It is a trial of strength. And we always stay in Tibhirine in an official context. For the moment it is a place of calm and of peace. The future? I am more than eighty years old. Fear is an absence of faith, faith transforms anxiety into trust. So of whom and of what should we be afraid? (12 July 1994).

 

 

Jesus is the free man to the utmost, free in everything. To love God in truth is thus to accept, like him, death without reservations. In being an encounter with God, death cannot be the object of terror. Death is God! (28 May 1995).

 

 

So I am 82. An old man is only a miserable thing unless his soul sings. Pray for me that the Lord may protect me in joy. Our region is once again immersed in the horrors of violence. God does not want misfortune. He is with the victims. God is with us (13 March 1996).

 

 

Here the violence is always at the same level, even though the censorship wants to conceal it. How can we move out of it? I do not think that violence can extirpate violence.  We cannot exist as men if we do not agree to be made images of Love, as it is expressed in Christ, the just man who wanted to endure the fate of the unjust (24 March 1996, two days before the kidnapping). [9]

 

 

 

 

 

Towards Easter

 

 

Each monk for his part and the community as a whole had prepared themselves for the eventuality of a violent death. The pathway had been different for each brother, according to his age, temperament, and the level of human and spiritual maturity he had achieved.

 

 

This is what Fr. Jean-Pierre tells us: “What we experienced at Tibhirine, together, was an action of graces. We prepared ourselves together. Out of faithfulness to our vocation we decided to stay here, knowing very well what could happen to us. The Lord invited us and we could have withdrawn, even though around us violent men tried to make us leave, as did official requests. But we had our teacher and we took a pledge in front of him. Secondly, there was our wish to remain faithful to the people around us, not to abandon them: they were threatened as we were, placed between two fires, between the army and the terrorists. The decision not to separate had already been taken in 1993 and even if we had been dispersed by force we found have come together again in Morocco to begin again, settling in another Muslim country”. [10]

 

 

 

 

 

Death

 

 

What had been long feared, suffered, prepared for and accepted, then took place. On the night of 26-27 March 1996, the seven brothers of Tibhirine were kidnapped. The kidnappers, the senders of whom remain unknown, were looking for seven monks.

 

 

In reality, that night, there were nine monks: Bruno, who had arrived from Fes for the election of the prior, and Paul, who had come the previous evening from Savoy after a visit to his family, were the other two. Both were taken.

 

 

Two monks escaped capture: Amédée and Jean-Pierre, whom the Providence of God held back in order to give continuity and witness to the love of their brothers. Seventeen years later the mystery has still not been solved: every so often a flash of light, real or only apparent, seems to throw light into the shadows that conceal the crime, leading to useless and suspicious tempests in the mass media. Why were they kidnapped? By whom? Why were they not killed immediately and why were they held hostage for a period of time unknown to us? How, when, why, was it then decided to kill them? What is hidden behind the silence or the lies of the possible murderers?

 

 

But their sacrifice was not in vain: they were faithful to God, to the Church of Algeria and to their vow of staying until the end; they chose to remain and to share the fate of a sick and corrupt Algeria, helping the least, the poor and the sick, in the hope of a more limpid and fraternal future; they loved unto the last sign, like Christ, their neighbours, the humble people of the locality, the country folk of Tibhirine, who were in danger, offering them sincere friendship. It was granted to them to bear witness to the absolute of God and to the possibility of loving limitlessly through the supreme, free and total gift of their lives.

 

 

[This article is published in Oasis n. 18. Click here to buy a copy of this issue of Oasis and here to subscribe to the journal]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

[1] Quoted in Guido Dotti (ed.) Più forti dell’odio, gli scritti dei monaci trappisti di Tibhirine (Piemme, Casale Monferrato, 1997), pp. 80-81.

 

 

[2] Christian de Chergé, Address at the Journées Romaines, September 1989, Bulletin n. 73 (1990/1) of the Pontifical Council for Non-Christians,  quoted in Più forti dell’odio, p. 38.

 

 

[3] Ibid., pp. 38 ss.

 

 

[4] Cf. Jean-Pierre Schumacher, ‘I sette fratelli di Tibhirine’, in Testimoni cistercensi del nostro tempo (Trappiste di Vitorchiano, 2006).

 

 

[5]Christian de Chergé, L’invincible espérance (Bayard/Centurion, Paris, 1997), p. 314.

 

 

[6] Il soffio del dono, Diario di Fr. Christophe, monaco di Tibhirine (Ed. Messaggero, Padua, 2001), p. 34.

 

 

[7] Ibid., p. 49.

 

 

[8] Original in the archives of the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Aiguebelle (France).

 

 

[9] Luc Dochier, ‘Stralci delle lettere di Fra Luc, monaco trappista di Thibirine Rivista Cistercense, 23 (2006), pp. 327-352.

 

 

[10] Cf. Jean-Marie Guénois, ‘Jean-Pierre, le dernier moine de Tibhirine témoigne’,  Le Figaro Magazine, 04/02/2011.

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