The abduction of the seven Trappist monks of Atlas
The unfolding of a tragedyThe night of Christmas 1993 was for the community of N. D. de l'Atlas in Tibhirine a decisive moment, and above all one of great spiritual intensity. Let us first examine the context. At the beginning of the year 1992 the interruption of the electoral process had led Algeria to a very volatile situation, with the suppression of the FIS as a political party, the imprisonment of its leaders and, later, the formation of several armed groups, in particular the GIA. On the 14th December 1993, twelve Croatian catholics, known to the monks, had had their throats cut at Tamesguida, a few kilometers from the monastery.
It was in this context that, a few days later, on the evening of 24th December 1993, after the evening meal, a group of six armed Islamists presented themselves at the monastery. The leader of the group, Emir Sayah Attiya, was known as a terrorist of redoubtable violence. He was responsible for the death of the Croatians, and, according to the security forces, had cut the throats of 145 persons. His exchange with Father Christian, Superior of the community at Tibhirine was extraordinary. Father Christian, appealing to the Koran, told him that the monastery was a place of prayer where no arms had ever entered and requested that the conversation take place outside the monastery. Attiya agreed to this. He presented to the monks, as "religious" like himself and his group of Islamists, three demands of cooperation. To each one Christian replied that it wasn't possible; each time he said: "you have no choice"; each time Christian replied: "yes, we have a choice". He left saying that he would send his emissaries with a password. As he was leaving Christian said: "You have come here armed just as we are preparing to celebrate Christmas, the feast of the Prince of Peace". He replied: "I am sorry, I didn't know".
The miracle was that not only did Sayah Attiya leave that evening without cutting the throats of the monks and without brutalizing them, but that he did not return, nor did he send his emissaries. When, about two months later, he was seriously wounded in a confrontation with the security forces, he suffered for nine days in the mountain district nearby before dying, but he did not send for the monastery doctor, which was one of the demands to which Christian had said that he could not respond. The monks never bought their safety by any concession whatever, and they never condoned any form of violence; but for them every person, even a terrorist, was a human person worthy of understanding.
When later, the Algerian administration wished to impose an armed military protection on the monastery, the community flatly refused this protection, using the same argument: arms have no place in a place of prayer and peace.
After this "visit" of Christmas 1993, the community dialogued for a long time on the attitude they should take. They seriously considered leaving the place. Finally, after having prayed, dialogued and taken advice, they decided to remain for the present, while foreseeing the possibility of moving rapidly to Algiers or Morocco, if the situation became more dangerous.
During the two following years, eleven religious of the diocese of Algiers were assassinated, in five different attacks: Henri Vergès, Marist Brother, and Sister Paule- Hélène, Little Sister of the Assumption, in May 1994; Sisters Caridad and Esther, Spanish Augustinians, in October 1994; the four White Fathers of Tizi Ouzou in December of the same year, Sisters Bibiane and Angèle-Marie of the sisters of Notre Dame des Apôtres in September 1995, and Sister Odette on the 10th November. Each time the monks of Tibhirine asked themselves the same question: should they leave or should they stay?
Each time they decided to stay. Each time, it was a decision taken after prayer and dialogue: a decision that was lucid, courageous, serene and unanimous. Not one of them "desired" martyrdom. Christian, speaking to a group of laypeople shortly before his abduction, said that such a desire would be a sin since it would be to desire that a "terrorist brother" should sin against the divine commandment "thou shalt not kill". His daily prayer during these past months had been: "Lord, disarm me, and disarm them."
Why did they stay? -- Simply out of fidelity to their vocation to be a humble christian contemplative presence on Algerian soil, since the church has the right and the duty to be present in all exceptional situations, just as in normal circumstances. Fidelity, too, to all the Algerians with whom they had established links of solidarity and friendship over a period of more than sixty years. Above all, fidelity to the people round about who seemed protected from all kinds of exactions, from one party or another, by the total neutrality of the monks.
I had occasion to visit them in January 1996, two months before the abduction. What struck me was their serenity. They didn't play the hero; some of them did not hide a certain fear. What had always "saved" them in this situation had been continuing to live a completely normal monastic life, with its balance of manual labor, reading of the Word of God and Divine Office. And so, on the night of Christmas 1993, after the departure of the six terrorists (the "brothers of the mountain" as they called them), the bell was rung and they went to church to celebrate Christmas Vigils and Midnight Mass, as if nothing had happened. It was with the same logic that, a little more than two years later, Father Amédée and Father Jean-Pierre having discovered, with a priest retreatant, that their seven confreres had been abducted, and after having tried in vain to inform the police, went to the church to celebrate Vigils, then Lauds and the Eucharist.
The monastery of Tibhirine had become, during the course of the years, a place of christian-muslim dialogue. This was the fruit of a natural evolution, and not of anything planned. On the one hand, the monastery is a place of prayer, and on the other hand, the monks have always been very respectful of the local people, culture and religion. A group of profoundly religious Muslims gradually began to frequent the monastery. As a result, a christian-muslim dialogue group, the Ribat (an Arabic word meaning "link"), was formed, which met regularly in the monastery for prayer and discussion. (Three of the eleven missionaries assassinated during these past years had been members of this group). On Christmas night 1995 six Muslim neighbors celebrated the feast of Christmas with the monks. Everyone obviously thought of the visit of the six "brothers of the mountain" two years earlier.
The Church in Algeria, so affected during the course of the past years by the above-mentioned murders and the departure of many of its faithful, Algerians and French, to France, is united around its bishop, Father Henri Teissier. These Christians who have chosen to remain and continue their Gospel presence, seem to have all received the same grace of serenity and humble courage of which I spoke above in reference to the monks of Tibhirine. This whole Church is deeply affected by the abduction of the monks. During Holy Week, which I had the grace of celebrating in Algiers, I was able to see how important the monastery was for all these Christians. Important for no other reason than the simple fact of being a completely contemplative monastery: a place of prayer and peace where all could go from time to time to pray, and where all were received as brothers and sisters. Even in these past years when the religious, the sisters and the priests had almost all had to regroup in Algiers, and when it had become almost impossible to go to the monastery, the road being too dangerous, the community of Tibhirine continued to be perceived as one of the "lungs" of the diocese.
The brothers of the monastery were unanimous in their commitment, their courage and their desire to remain at Tibhirine. They are all well loved by the population and the Christians of the diocese. However, a special tribute should be paid to Father Christian, their superior for the past twelve years. Father Christian had chosen Algeria and the monastery of Notre-Dame de l'Atlas. Though he made his novitiate in Aiguebelle in France, it was for Atlas, and it was for this monastery that he made his profession. Some years later he went to Rome to do two years of intensive study of the Arabic language and culture at the Pontifical Institute of Arabic Studies. He speaks Arabic fluently and is well versed in the Koran and Muslim religious tradition. He has a profound respect for the milieu and the people among he has chosen to live. This respect is tangible and explains why the monastery gradually became a place of islamic-christian encounter, simply because everyone felt they were received there as brothers and sisters and that their difference was respected.
Another member of the community whose presence and personality have marked the history of the community is Brother Luc, a doctor by profession, aged 82 at the time of his abduction, who had already been seized for a time as hostage of the FLN, during the war of Algerian Independence. A member of the monastery of Tibhirine since 1946, he has become a veritable legend in the region. Without ever adopting any political cause, without ever compromising over anything, and without going to treat the wounded of any faction whatsoever outside the monastery, he never refused to treat the sick who came to him in his dispensary at the gate of the monastery, seeing in each one a human being in need, an icon of Christ. As I write these lines the seven brothers of N.D. de l'Atlas have been missing for two weeks, and we have still no news of them. We continue to hope that they will all return to us alive. It is hardly feasible that, in the present circumstances, they would be able to return to their monastery. The community -- whom two postulants were preparing to join -- will live for a time in diaspora and we hope they will be able to re-establish themselves in Tibhirine when better times come. Had the monks decided themselves to leave Tibhirine during the course of the past years, it would have been a bitter blow for the local population and for the Church of Algiers and its pastor. They refused this, with courage and lucidity. Now that they are forced to leave, this trial is experienced by all with the same sorrow, but also the same serenity, as all the plunderings of the past years.
Algeria, 9 April 1996
Armand Veilleux, OCSO