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Religion and Society

Tibhirine, offering one's own life to make the work of Another live on

Ten years ago seven Trappist friars of the monastery of Notre-Dame de l'Atlas, in Algeria, were killed after fifty-six days of imprisonment. This was a disturbing event in the war of Islamist terrorism which was transformed into a luminous and mysterious witness of love.

Ten years ago, on 21 May 1996, Christian de Chergé, the Superior (prior) of the Cistercian monastery of Notre-Dame de l'Atlas in Tibhirine, and six of his Trappist friars were (officially) murdered by Muslim terrorists of the GAI (Group of Armed Islamists) after fifty-six days of imprisonment in the Algerian scrub. Some people have interpreted this collective murder as a failure for those monks who had chosen to live in friendship with their Muslim neighbours. But the prior of Tibhirine in his spiritual testament had predicted this controversy: 'My death, evidently, will appear to vindicate those who dismissed me as an ingénue or an idealist: 'say now what you think!'' The point is evident: Christian de Chergé was fully aware, on the one hand, of the danger inherent in his situation, and, on the other, of the negative interpretation that some people would make of his murder. However, with the whole of his community he deliberately accepted the risk that he would be put to death. Why? What could have been the fecundity expected of this presence of prayer, work, hospitality and sharing of life in a poor village, in the land of Islam, to the point of death?

 

 

'A tree that falls make more noise than a forest that grows', recites an Asian proverb. Christian de Chergé believed that he must not concentrate all his attention on birth pangs but rather that he had to consider the end, foresee the future, and hasten the arrival of new times of fraternity. A great deal has been written on the murder of the friars but it is necessary to focus in on their daily lives, which was discreet and rich in a presence that went back to 1938. For them it was a matter of experiencing the mystery of the Incarnation in the land of Islam. In the Jewish and Roman land this Incarnation had already 'ended with a murder', as Christian de Chergé observed shortly before his death. Why should things have gone differently in Algeria in the twentieth century? From this point of view, a monastic presence in a country devastated by violence could not exclude personal human failure. On the contrary: 'It is through poverty, failure and death that we move towards God', wrote Luc Dochier, the monk who was a doctor at Tibhirine, to his friend in Lyons, Dr. Paul Grenot, in April 1994. But in Christian theology such failure can be transformed into an ordinary victory. In the sharing of the mortal condition of a people, of a civilisation and even of a religion, to the point of disappearing, a transformation of this environment can be achieved. This is the grace of martyrdom, which, in its weakness, came to convert by peaceful means the Roman Empire, and to the point of making Christianity the official religion under the Emperor Constantine and his successors. For the monks of Tibhirine, therefore, being murdered was certainly not a good thing, but neither would it be an absolute failure.

 

 

It was a matter for them first of all of answering the request of their Muslim neighbours who wanted the monks to remain with them to the end, notwithstanding their increasing insecurity. But this relationship of disinterested and faithful love led the community to experience the mystery of the paschal Incarnation in all its fecundity. 'Here violence is always at the same level', observed Friar Luc, in a letter of 24 March 1996, 'even though the censorship would like to conceal this. How will we get out of this? I do not think that violence can extirpate violence. We cannot exist as men unless we accept making ourselves the image of love, as manifested in Christ, who, a just man, wanted to experience the destiny of the unjust'. Indeed, the unjust death of Christ broke the infernal spiral of hatred and gave life to a new humanity animated by the breath of the Spirit.

 

 

The Vocation of the Monastery

 

How did the breath of the Spirit on the village of Tibhirine after the Easter of 'its' monks manifest itself? For the inhabitants, the kidnapping, the murder and then the decision of the Cistercian order not to continue with the monastery, with the exception of the cemetery, was a terrible trial. Fortunately, the diocese of Algiers purchased the property and an Association of Friends of Tibhirine came into being to make the place live on despite the problems of security in the region of Medea. This group acts 'voluntarily with a certain discretion'.1 However, it is very active thanks to its benefactors and to a priest who goes every week to the monastery to control how far advanced are certain projects for the benefit of the inhabitants of the village: co-operation with the school in Tibhirine (teaching material, a dining hall), the purchase of farm animals, help for homes, skilled work (with the participation of a nun of the diocese), and help for marriages. The guest house has also been restored and is beginning to be used to receive groups for retreats, even though the stays never last more than one or two days. Summer camps are also envisaged as soon as the climate of security allows them. These external forms of help and the increase in the number of visits are clearly good news for the village, whose future depends very much on an improvement in the general political climate. In the view of the Association of Friends of Tibhirine, 'there is a clear improvement in security in Algeria, including the region of Medea. The extreme tension which for years weighed upon the inhabitants is disappearing. Now we can sleep soundly without changing the watch at night. In this context, the wish to visit and to make a pilgrimage to Tibhirine is expressed by people and it is often realised, either in groups or individually'.2 It is by now clear: the murder of the monks did not put an end to the vocation of the monastery as a 'place of peace, of charity and of sharing'.3 Perhaps the brotherhood and the mutual help will be even greater than during the period when the monks were present.

 

 

The fecundity of the martyrdom of the monks very much goes beyond the boundaries of Tibhirine. The series of murders of Christian religious in Algeria (nineteen from 1993 to 1996) came to an end with the death of the monks and of Pierre Claverie. To read certain newspapers, this witness of brotherhood without frontiers, of forgiveness and of non-violence, prepared spirits for a work of reconciliation not only between persons but also between ideas, in an effort to overcome the shreds of a tormented national history. Peace and reconciliation were specifically the objectives of the document that President Bouteflika subjected to a referendum on 29 September 2005. More than ninety-seven per cent of the voters of Algeria approved this text which aims to proceed with the disarmament of the extremists involved in the violence of the 1990s and which assures an amnesty for a large part of those who decide to give themselves up. This programme of reconciliation and peace amongst all Algerians is seen by some people as being purely opportunistic and tactical. Without doubt its intentions and its results are not up to what is involved. Whatever the case, however, the bloody trials experienced by the Church of Algeria, side by side with the people of Algeria, will without doubt mark a new stage in the disassociation of Christianity from the fact of colonialism and this will allow a better distinction to be made between the theological debate the political struggle. Will perhaps the shared injustices and sufferings encourage an unprecedented and open drawing near of people?

 

 

The Garden of the Martyrs

 

The tenth anniversary of the death of the monks of Tibhirine invites us to go further and to honour the last wishes of Christian de Chergé as they were expressed in his spiritual testament: 'I do not see how I could be happy at the fact that this people that I love is indistinctly will be accused of my murder. This is too high a price for what will perhaps be called 'the grace of martyrdom': to be a debtor for it to an Algerian, whoever he will be, above all if he says that he is acting in observance of what he believes to be Islam'. Christian de Chergé invites us to forgive and 'turn our gaze to that of the Father in order to contemplate with Him His Sons of Islam as He sees them, all illuminated by the glory of Christ, the fruits of his passion, invested with the Gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to re-establish likeness by playing with differences'. This gaze of the Father manifested in Jesus Christ is the gaze of a God of Love of brotherhood and forgiveness who calls all men to live out the words of the Psalm: 'Love and truth will meet each other, justice and peace will embrace one another' (Ps 85:11). The monks of Tibhirine loved their neighbours with their differences of nationality, religion, and social environment, the inhabitants of an Algerian village, Muslims, of modest conditions, by proclaiming the truth of the Gospel through a city of fraternal charity without frontiers.

 

 

The peace that envelops the monastery which created the village was based upon gratitude, hospitality, mutual help and co-operation in work. The fight against terrorism will be in vain if it is conducted solely in relation to the symptoms of a malaise that comes from a lack of love and justice, The Christian life, which looks for communion in prayer, in work, in welcome and in disinterested service, offers a solution, the only solution there is: to live as brothers. Friar Paul asked himself in January 1995: 'what will remain in a few months of the Church of Algeria, of its visibility, of its structures, of the people that make it up? Little, very little, probably. However, I believe that the good news has been sown, that the grain has germinatedThe Spirit is at work, and works in the depths of the hearts of men'. After the death of the monks a mother of a Algerian family wrote the following words to the Archbishop of Algiers which confirm, together with others, the hope of Friar Paul: 'Our specific duty is to continue the path of peace, of love of God and of men in their differences. Our duty is to always nourish the grains that our monks left behind to us as a legacy'. Tibhirine, which means 'garden' in the language of the Berbers, has not stopped making the land of men fertile. This light is health-giving for our time.

 

 

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1. Letter n. 5 of the office of the Association of Friends of Tibhirine, dated October 2005.

 

 

2. Ibidem.

 

 

3. Ibidem.

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