Seeing Things: Seven Modern Martyrs

“We have cut the throats of the seven monks as we said we would do. It happened this morning. May God be praised.” This expression of ferocious Muslim piety appeared in a communiqué signed by Emir Abou abd al Rahmen Amin on May 21, 1995, and records the deaths of seven Trappist monks who had been kidnapped from their monastery in Tibhirine, Algeria, two months earlier. Amin, whose nom de guerre was Jamel Zitouni, had risen to the leadership of Algeria’s fundamentalist Islamic rebels by a ruthless campaign of eliminating opponents and anyone else—Muslim, Christian, or foreigner—perceived as standing in the way of establishing a pure Islamic state in Algeria. Amin himself perished just two months later in what appears to have been factional infighting within the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA).

The communique was actually restrained on one point: The monks not only had their throats cut; they had their heads cut off. We know this because all seven heads were eventually found—though the bodies were buried and never recovered.

Severed heads were common in Algeria in the mid-1990s, as that troubled country sought a path toward a free and modern system despite rising fundamentalism. About 100,000 people, most of them Algerian Muslims, died while the government tried to restore order. The seven French Trappists of Tibhirine—Brothers Christian-Marie, Bruno, Celestin, Christophe, Luc, Michel, and Paul—had decided to remain in Algeria despite the danger because their neighbors depended on them for assistance, food, and medical care. They went about their business quietly, seeking not to convert Muslims but to maintain a humble, humane presence in the midst of hatred and hardship. In fact, they organized a ribat-es-salaam (Bond of Peace), a twice-yearly meeting between Christian and Muslim holy men and women. It was an occasion for adherents of the two faiths to meet together in mutual respect and dialogue.

Since September 11, many people have wondered how the Christian and Muslim worlds will ever come to an understanding. For the most part, we look to large-scale negotiations among governments and religious leaders to resolve conflicts that go back over a thousand years. These discussions are desperately necessary. But so is something else, some living and humble witness that actually allows people to meet and understand one another. From one point of view, the Algerian Trappists were simply snuffed out by the usual violence. From another perspective, they achieved something immense: Thousands of Algerian Muslims sent letters of regret and apology to Bishop Henri Teissier in Algiers. Muslim leaders elsewhere followed suit: The grand imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar Mosque called the murders “a criminal act contrary to all divine religions”; a Lebanese sheik pronounced the act “inhuman”; even Iran’s foreign ministry characterized it as “outside the bounds of humanity”

The Trappists had touched a deep chord in the heart of Islam.

Though the whole incident was duly reported by the secular press in the West, there has been little careful examination of the monks’ lives, except by a few specialists. The Trappist abbot general, Bernardo Olivera, wrote a short book about them right after their deaths, but it reached only a limited Catholic circle. John W. Kiser’s The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria from St. Martin’s Press is the first book to bring the story to the general public.

Kiser is a former international business executive and writer who has taken on ambitious subjects including communism, economics, and literature. He has a sincere and profound admiration for the heroic and humble lives of his subjects. At the same time, he tries to lay out the political, social, and religious background of Algeria from its inception as a French colony in 1830 to recent years. His sympathy for the many “good” Muslims that the monks encountered in their daily life in Algeria rivals that of the monks themselves. Kiser has no illusions; he does not believe that the soft path of dialogue taken by the monks will be very successful or much imitated in places where passions are inflamed. But he offers them as one type of witness at a moment when the world is in great need of fresh religious initiatives.

Kiser argues that the monks were not martyrs, since they did not die for their faith: “They died because they wouldn’t leave their Muslim friends, who depended on them and who lived in equal danger.” For Catholics, of course, the Vatican will have the final word on this question. But it is worth pointing out that John Paul II has repeatedly spoken about what he calls the “New Martyrs,” a term that covers both those contemporary martyrs who died because they would not renounce their faith and the Christian witnesses who die while carrying out a mission that is part of their vocation. Even Kiser allows that in this sense, the Trappists were “martyrs of hope.”

Their prior, Christian de Cherge, anticipated the kind of controversy that might emerge if he and the others died at the hands of the Muslim rebels. In what has come to be known as his “Testament,” he almost refuses the title “martyr” in advance: “I have lived long enough to know that I, too, am an accomplice of the evil that seems to prevail in the world around, even that which might lash out blindly at me.” He thinks about all the good Muslims he has known in Algeria and reflects: “The price is too high, this so-called grace of the martyr, if I owe it to an Algerian who kills me in the name of what he thinks is Islam.” And in what might almost be called a moment of clairvoyance, he writes: “And to you, too, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you, too, I wish this thank-you, this ‘A Dieu,’ whose image is in you also, that we may meet in heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases God, our common Father. Amen! Insha Allah!”

Brother Christian was the most open of the monks, even though he had served with the French forces during the brutal war for Algerian independence. Some of the other monks who had also served in that war were less optimistic than Brother Christian about the Christian-Muslim dialogue, though they all felt solidarity with their neighbors. As anyone familiar with religious life knows, even the strictest rule does not stamp out individual differences—at times, it even allows them to flourish more strongly. Brother Christophe, for instance, was a product of “1968” in Paris, a generation that feared commitment. His eventual entry into the Trappists overcame his fear of commitments, but in a way that preserved his old idealism; “The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom.” Brother Luc, a crusty and asthmatic doctor, was forced not only to live in harmony with his fellows but to offer medical assistance to everyone, including the opposing factions in the mid-1990s. Each of these men gives us the rare opportunity to see the kind of Christian faithfulness that defies fear and death—two daily challenges for them all—a kind of faithfulness that is all but unknown in our modern democratic societies.

The witness the Tibhirine monks offered may not be for everyone, and it certainly cannot solve large-scale tensions between Islam and Christianity. But they do suggest a way to begin breaking the cycle of violence in many places around the world. It is telling that a professor at the University of Algiers (who, out of fear of potential reprisals, asked not to be named) predicted to Kiser: “One day, those monks will be considered saints by Muslims, Christians, and Jews.”

Robert Royal

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Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of TheCatholicThing.org, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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