Honouring monks killed more than 20 years ago reopens painful chapter of Algeria’s bloody civil war

On March 27, 1996, the GIA broke into the monastery and kidnapped seven of the nine monks.
Sunday 11/02/2018
Due homage. A monk looks at seven statues made by artist Anne Deltour of the Tibhirine monks killed in Algeria more than 20 years ago in the garden of the Archdiocese in Lyon. (AFP)
Due homage. A monk looks at seven statues made by artist Anne Deltour of the Tibhirine monks killed in Algeria more than 20 years ago in the garden of the Archdiocese in Lyon. (AFP)

TUNIS - Nineteen monks and nuns killed during the Algerian civil war have been recognised as “martyrs” by the Roman Catholic Church, a step ahead of beatification. The long-awaited move, more than 20 years after the religious figures’ death, reopens a painful chapter of Algeria’s civil war but highlights the important role of French monastic life in the country’s history.

“Honouring the 19 Christian martyrs means paying homage to the memory of all those who gave their life in Algeria during those dark years… for their country and for their faith,” Trappist priest Thomas Georgeon told Mondo e Missione, the official magazine of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions.

Among those declared martyrs on January 24 were Bishop Pierre Lucien Claverie of Oran and seven monks of Tibhirine, Cistercian Trappists who were captured by Islamic extremists in 1996 and whose story was told in the 2010 film “Of Gods and Men.”

The monks — Dom Christian de Cherge, Brother Luc (born Paul Dochier), Father Christophe (Lebreton), Brother Michel (Fleury), Father Bruno (born Christian Lemarchand), Father Celestin (Ringeard) and Brother Paul (Favre-Miville) — lived in Atlas Abbey near Medea. There they prayed, worked in the fields and provided services to the predominantly Muslim community. Their Trappist monastery was one of the few remaining in a foreign land.

Modern European history Professor Darcie Fontaine, of the University of South Florida, wrote that the monks’ presence in Tibhirine “in many ways represents the ideal of the Christian presence in Algeria after independence.”

“The monks lived very humbly and they served the community directly,” wrote Fontaine in “Decolonizing Christianity: Religion and the End of Empire in France and Algeria.” “Brother Luc continued to see up to 50 patients a day in the monastery clinic until the day he was kidnapped.”

As the civil war raged in the mid-1990s, Algeria became an increasingly hostile ground for religious minorities and foreigners, who were frequently targeted by Islamic extremists.

In May 1994, a Catholic priest and nun were killed in a library in Algiers. Later that year, four Catholic priests were killed in a presbytery in Tizi Ouzou, about 100km south-east of Algiers. The Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA), an Islamist insurgency that was battling the Algerian government, took responsibility for the attacks, as well as others against foreign workers and clergy.

Despite the reports, as well as calls from the Algerian government for the monks to depart, they unanimously decided to stay.

“The monks of Tibhirine were extremely sensitive to the responsibility on their shoulders,” wrote Fontaine in “Decolonizing Christianity.” “… If they left… it would look as though Christianity deserted Algeria in its time of need… In addition… they knew that the military would take over the monastery and the villagers would be swept into the violence of war.”

On March 27, 1996, the GIA broke into the monastery and kidnapped seven of the nine monks. Their heads were discovered two months later but their bodies were never found.

The GIA claimed responsibility for the men’s death but recent reports cast doubt on that version of events, with some accusing the Algerian government of being behind their killings.

French Judge Marc Trevidic reopened an investigation into their case in 2010 but it has faced delays due to a lack of cooperation from authorities.

Regardless of the events surrounding their death, the monks represent a Christian tradition that has a long and complicated history in Algeria.

Christianity was introduced to North Africa by the Romans in the first and second centuries and it quickly spread across the region. By the end of the fifth century, some historians estimate, parts of Algeria were likely fully Christian. Saint Augustine of Hippo, a leading Christian writer and theologian whose work “City of God” is a seminal text of Catholic theology, was a Berber from Algeria.

After the Islamic conquest in the seventh century, Christianity was all but eradicated in Algeria until the era of French colonisation when it was reintroduced through conquest.

But as the martyrs’ lives attest, Christian communities left complicated legacies, many of which involved deep sacrifice and service to those around them. Many missionaries, clergy and monastics contributed generously to charitable causes, while opening schools, medical centres and workshops during Algeria’s post-independence era.

As for the monks of Tibhirine, “Each one of them has been a genuine witness of the love of Christ, of dialogue, of openness to others, of friendship and loyalty to the Algerian people,” said Georgeon.

The date of their beatification has yet to be announced but bishops said they hope it will take place in Algeria, said Georgeon, where the monks’ legacy remains a source of inspiration and unity.