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John W. Kiser, The Monks of Tibhirine.  Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria. St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010, 2002, 288 pages (cloth) $25.95.


            In March 1996 seven Trappist monks where abducted from their monastery in the Atlas mountains of Algeria.  Two months later they were executed by their captors.  During those two months, in the whole world, but especially in France, since they were all French by nationality -- although some of them had spent the largest part of their life in Algeria -- people became aware of what a special community they were.  For decades, before and after the Algerian war of independence of the 1960ies, those monks had established deep bonds of friendship with the local Muslim population; and their prior, Father Christian de Chergé, had become one of the leading figures in the dialogue between Muslims and Christians.  Their death was a great source of sorrow for the local Muslim population and was condemned by several representatives of the Muslim world as well as by Christians.


            Each one of these seven monks was a fascinating personality.  Kiser describes in great details the spiritual journey of each one, situating it against their family and cultural background and in the historical context of Algeria. 


            The events of those years in Algeria were extremely complex.  The country was engaged in a civil war between various groups of Islamists and the Army, after the Generals had interrupted the electoral process and seized the power.  The ordinary people of Algeria was the victim, finding itself between the violence of the Islamist radicals and the violence of the army.  Foreigners were told to leave, and eventually several Christian missionaries were killed.  In spite of the danger, the monks refused to leave, considering that their obligation to monastic stability as well as their solidarity with the local Muslim population demanded that they stay.  A radical group of Islamists called the GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé) claimed their abduction and their execution after a botched negotiation with the French secret services.  Kiser describes all these events with great objectivity avoiding to show the monks as victims of "Muslim fanatics".  He must be congratulated for that objectivity, since the investigations of the last few years have led several specialists to think that the Algerian secret services (Sécurité militaire) were involved in the abduction if not responsible for it. 


            Kiser avoids trying to show that the monks were martyrs for being killed in hate of their faith.  In fact they were authentic witnesses to faith, and therefore authentic martyrs, by the way in which they lived, and by the manner in which they practiced friendship and love with their Muslim brothers.  They died -- whoever killed them -- because that brotherhood between Christians and Muslims was a nuisance to some.


            Few books about the Monks of Tibhirine have been written in English, while a large number were published in French.  Of all these books, in whatever language, Kiser's is one of the best, precisely because, while being a carefully researched presentation of the facts and their historical and political background, it attaches itself to presenting the spiritual and human journey of each one of the protagonists with a great deal of empathy and respect.


            In this time when some people try to create and deepen a rift between cultures, civilizations and religions, and when Islam is often known in the West only through the manifestations of some of its extremist marginal elements, Kiser helps us to know another Islam, the real one, the one of the ordinary people of a small village like Tibhirine were Contemplative Christian monks and devout local Muslims could live in brotherhood and friendship.



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