The Monks of Tibhirine
Faith, love, and terror in Algeria
John W. Kiser (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002)
351 p. First reading.
In the early morning hours of March 27, 1996 armed men, members of the Groupe Islamique Arme (GIA), entered the Cistercian monastery of Notre-Dame de l’Atlas in the Algerian desert and kidnapped seven of the nine monks. Several months later, the heads of the monks were found. These events were covered extensively by the European media at the time, all of the brothers being French citizens, but received relatively little attention on this side of the Atlantic. In this book, John Kiser writes about the history of the monastery, the lives of the monks, and the political unrest in Algeria that eventually resulted in their deaths.
At the center of the story is the prior of the monastery, Christian de Cherge. Born in Algeria, he returned there as an adult to join the Cistercian community, which had been originally founded in 1938. Christian’s motive for returning was his love for the country and its people, and his life’s work was to further understanding between Christianity and Islam. The brothers seem to have lived in quiet harmony with their village neighbours, offering medical care and food when it was needed. The monastery itself, being under the patronage of Our Lady, was honoured and admired by the local people.
Yet, beginning in the early 1990s, Algeria experienced a sharp increase in terrorism at the hands of Islamic militants. The government reciprocated with brutal violence that didn’t always hit the mark, and the conflict escalated. Foreigners were ordered by the terrorists to leave the country, and many did so. The monks, however, felt that it was their responsibility to remain as a sign of peace, and also as an encouragement to the small Christian community in Algeria. It was a commitment they would revisit and renew every few months as the struggle around them raged. As Br. Paul wrote to a friend following the murder of several priests in another part of the country: “How far does one go to save his skin without running the risk of losing his soul?”
A large part of the book is dedicated to the twisting narrative of the political machinations that brought Algeria to the point of civil war. What becomes clear is how troubled the country was by the renewed strength of militant Islam. Many argued that the Islamists were discrediting Islam by their actions, and little wonder, for the boldness and savagery of the GIA’s tactics were shocking. One is reminded of Pascal’s aphorism: “Men never do evil as thoroughly or as joyfully as when they do it in the name of God.” Potential recruits to the Islamist cause were sometimes required to prove their devotion by killing a member of their family. Many dozens of imams were killed because they refused to issue a fatwa supporting the terrorist actions — a fact that ought not to be forgotten. In all, it is estimated that about 100,000 people lost their lives in the civil violence of the 1990s.
Given that the conflict was on this scale, why focus on the lives of seven French monks? Mainly, I think, because they were so conspicously devoted to peace, and because they chose to stay and suffer danger with all those whose names are not known. But also, Kiser argues, because their killing was controversial even within the GIA. The murders were condemned by the Egyptian Jihad, the Libyan Islamic Fighters, and other militant groups. The internal struggle within the GIA sparked by these killings led to that movement’s splintering into factions that eventually weakened it enough for some stability to return to the country.
The names of the seven monks were Br. Bruno, Br. Celestin, Br. Christian, Br. Christophe, Br. Luc, Br. Michel, and Br. Paul. After their deaths, a letter which Br. Christian had written came to light, and has been published as his last testament. This document makes clear, if there were any doubts, that these were good men.
Kiser has done an excellent job of telling their story. His prose style is clear and unsensational, which is important for an account like this one. As of the time of writing, the monastery of Notre-Dame de l’Atlas has been abandoned. The two surviving monks, Br. Amadee and Br. Jean-Pierre (who survived, by the way, only because they were sleeping in a separate room and the kidnappers didn’t realize they were there), are currently living in Morocco, where they have since been joined by several new candidates for monastic life. They hope someday to return to Algeria.
The above was written several years ago. I post it today because a film based on the life of these monks, Des Hommes et des Dieux (Of Men and Gods), has just been awarded the Ecumenical Jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival. I don’t know when or if the film will arrive on these shores, but here is a short clip: