Martyrs Of Love

The decree of beatification of 19 “martyrs” killed in Algeria in the 1990s, including the seven monks of Tibhirine and the former Bishop of Oran Pierre Claverie, was signed on Friday 26th January. “Each of them was an authentic witness of Christ’s love, of dialogue, of openness to others, of friendship and fidelity to the Algerian people”.

“Honouring the 19 Christian martyrs means paying homage to the memory of all those who gave their lives in Algeria in the 90s”, said the French Trappist monk Thomas Georgeon, “postulator” (lawyer) of the cause.

Who were these 19 martyrs? “They are very different people” – continued Father Georgeon, “from bishop Claverie, to the monks of Tibhirine, to numerous religious men and women of various congregations. Each of them are an authentic witness of Christ’s love, of dialogue, of openness to others, of friendship and fidelity to the Algerian people. They had an immense faith in Christ and his Gospel. They did not give their lives for an idea, for a cause, but for Him. They had a deep love for Algeria, the land where the Lord had sent them. Inspired by the Gospel, they had great affection for the Algerian people, especially the poor and the young”.

“They respected the faith of the other and desired to understand Islam. They realised that they belonged to a Church that saw its presence completely transformed after the country achieved independence. It had become a “guest” Church —small, humble, caring, and loving. Each of the 19 martyrs, like so many other members of the Church who are still alive, gave profound witness to this way of being. Their life and their death are like an icon of the identity of the Church of Algeria. To the very end, they understood that their vocation was to be a sacrament of Christ’s love for all his people”, pointed out Fr. Georgeon.

Such was the extraordinary example of the seven Trappist monks of Tibhlrine, murdered in Algeria in 1996. The facts – during the night of the 26th March 1996, seven of the nine monks present at the monastery of Tibhirine, were kidnapped in circumstances that have never been clarified. The seven monks were murdered, probably on the 21st May 1996. The precise happenings of the fifty-six days of their detention and the details of their death are still shrouded in mystery. Their choice to remain in Algeria, despite an increasing atmosphere of terror, had matured in them together after the intimidating visit of an armed group, on Christmas Eve, 1993. This was a free decision to express their will to remain together, as they shared with their neighbours the dangers of the violence, which was aimed especially at the most destitute. It also expressed their solidarity with the small ecclesial community and the gift of themselves to God and to Algeria.

A few months before, Dom Christian de Cherge, prior of the community, wrote his own spiritual testament. He said “If it should happen one day, and it could be today, that I become a victim of the terrorism that now seems to encompass the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to Algeria. I ask them to accept the fact that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I would ask them to pray for me, for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones, which are forgotten through indifference or anonymity. My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil which seems to prevail so terribly in the world, even ln the evil which might blindly strike me down”.

“I should like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down. I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder. It would be too high a price to pay for what will perhaps be called, the ‘grace of martyrdom’, to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he might be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam. I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on the Algerians indiscriminately”

“I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam, which a certain Islamism fosters. It is too easy to soothe one’s conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are something different, it is a body and a soul. I have proclaimed this often enough, I think, in the light of that I have received from it. I so often find here that true strand of the Gospel which I learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church, precisely in Algeria, and already inspired with respect for Muslim believers”.

“Obviously, my death will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic, ‘Let him tell us now what he thinks of his ideals’. But these persons should know that finally my most avid curiosity will be set free. This is what I shall be able to do, God willing. Immerse my gaze in that of the Father to contemplate with him His children of Islam just as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and restore the likeness playing with the differences. For this life lost, totally mine and totality theirs, I thank God, who seems to have willed it entirely for the sake of that ‘joy’ in everything and in spite of everything”.

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