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The Martyrs of Tibhirine *


          In October 1963 the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance decided to close the monastery of Our Lady of Atlas at Tibhirine in Algeria.  A year and a half before, Algeria had acquired its independence and most of the nine hundred thousand Catholic pieds noirs had left the country and returned to France. There was no hope for any local recruitment and it seemed that the community had no hope for a future in that country that was now explicitly and clearly a Muslim country.  The decision was communicated to Cardinal Duval, archbishop of Algiers, in St. Peter’s Basilica one morning at the opening of that day’s session of the Council.  The Cardinal reacted very strongly and for various reasons, including the Abbot General’s unexpected death, the monastery was not closed.


          More than ten years later seven monks of Tibhirine were kidnapped and assassinated two months later. Their cause of beatification as martyrs has been opened in the diocese of Algiers a few months ago, along with that of all the other priests and religious who were victims of the same violence in Algiers in the same period.  I would like to stress the fact that they should be considered as authentic martyrs because of the way they lived more than because of the circumstances of their death.


          If I have mentioned Cardinal Duval at the beginning of this brief presentation, it is because the monks of Tibhirine were a faithful embodiment of the type of Church he wanted for Algeria, and of the type of Christian witness that he always advocated – a witness made of mutual respect and brotherly cohabitation.  And such a witness can be understood only taking into consideration the situation of the local Church and its relationship with society and with the political powers of the time.


          There tragedy of the Algerian Church of the past was that it was always the Church of an invading foreign power.  There was a flourishing Church in Northern Africa in the time of Augustine of Hippo, but it was 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 Ketchaoua mosque, one of the most important mosques of Algiers, was immediately transformed into a Christian cathedral with the canons of the infantry and the marine firing their bullets as the cross and the French flag were raised on the minaret.  That gave the signal to the type of Christian presence that will last more or less unchanged for about a century.  It was the Church of French settlers amid a despised Muslim population.


          The situation began to change with Cardinal Lavigerie and changed radically with the coming of bishop Duval to Algeria.  He was appointed bishop of Constantine in 1946 and then of Algiers of 1954, less than a decade before the independence of the country.  He was most of all a pastor, but a pastor who constantly analysed all the political situations under the light of the Gospel.  He condemned all the forms of violence -- that of the colonial army as well as that of the Algerians fighting for their independence.  He refused to accept a society where there was a small minority exercising the power over the great majority.  He believed in the brotherly cohabitation of the Arabs and the French, of the Christians and the Muslims.  Not an intellectual, he did not care too much for the type of theological dialogue à la Massignon, showing the theological and religious consonances between the Gospel and the Coran.  What he believed in was concrete, basic human solidarity in all the aspects of human life between Christians and Muslims, even in a situation where Christians were a tiny minority.  To leave because the Church could no longer be powerful and influent was not an option for him. He led the small remnant of his Church through the independence period, acquired the Algerian nationality and was widely respected till the time of his death, a few days after that of the monks [1] .


          If the presence of the monks of Tibhirine in post-colonial, and Muslim Algeria was so important for Cardinal Duval, as he forcefully expressed it to Dom Gabriel Sortais in the Basilica St. Peter, it was because they embodied in their way of life that type of Church.  And he remained their friend and supporter till the end, long after he had been replaced as archbishop of Algiers.


          Dom Christian de Chergé acquired a good knowledge of Islam and a great esteem for its spirituality.  He established an ongoing dialogue with a small group of profoundly devout Muslims, especially with a group of Sufis.  A dialogue group called the Ribat 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 Christian came.  It was that brotherly cohabitation so important for Cardinal Duval, the sharing of work and small material possessions, the friendship with the neighbours, that attention to everyone’s need.  They were authentic witness to Christian love. And that’s the main aspect of their witness or “martyrdom”.


          Just as the war for independence had radically changed the situation in the 1950ies and elicited from Duval a courageous Christian response, a new situation was created in the 1990ies and demanded a clear response from the Christians and particularly from the monks of Tibhirine.


          At the end of 1991, the FIS (Front Islamique du Salut), profiting from a general dissatisfaction with corrupt politicians in power, won the majority of the votes in the first round of the legislative elections, and were set to win the second round.  The Generals of the Army obliged president Chadli to resign and interrupted the electoral process.  Thereupon a long period of extreme violence begin 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.  People had to choose between two forms of violence.


          Some in the Church took side by approving the interruption of the electoral process, as a necessary means to save Algeria from what they saw as the danger of the Islamic domination and the sharia.  The monks of Tibhirine did not choose.  They felt they had to keep a brotherly relationship with everyone in the conflict, the “brothers of the mountain” as they called the Islamic groups and the “brothers of the plain” as they called the army.  That was unforgivable.  They were not the only ones. Many other witness to Christian love were killed at the same time. Each one of them was very well integrated in the Arab population and each one was killed in the place where he exercised that concrete love. That was unforgivable [2] .


They felt also 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 those 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 signed he condemnation to death.


          Whether the monks were killed by radical Islamic militants, because they were Christians, according to the official position, 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”. 


          They were martyrs not because of the circumstances of  their death, but because of the way they lived.  And, obviously, the way they lived the Gospel led someone – whoever they were – to get rid of them.




* Talk given at the International Symposium on Mission and Monasticism, at the Pontifical Athenaeum S. Anselmo, Rome, May 7-9, 2009; published in Mission and Monasticism, edited by Conrad Leyser and Hannah Williams, Analecta Monastica 13 (Studia Anselmiana 158) Roma 2013, 227-229.




[1] See Marco Impagliazzo, Duval d'Algeria.  Una Chiesa tra Europa e mondo arabo (1948-1988). Edizioni Studium, Roma 1994.

[2] See John W. Kiser, The Monks of Tibhirine. Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria.  St. Martin’s Griffin ed. New York 2003.