Legacy of Slain Monks of Tibhirine Recounted by Priest Who Was in Ill-fated Monastery
Last Testament of Victim Prior Blesses Murderers
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TIBHIRINE, Algeria, MARCH 28, 2006 (Zenit.org).- A friend of the prior of the Trappist monks of Tibhirine is trying to stir interest in the spiritual legacy of those men who were murdered a decade ago.
On the night of March 26-27, 1996, some 20 gunmen invaded the Monastery of Notre Dame of Atlas in Tibhirine and kidnapped its seven Trappist monks, of French nationality.
A month later, Djamel Zitouni, leader of the Armed Islamic Groups, claimed responsibility for the kidnappings and proposed an exchange of prisoners to France.
The following month, a second communiqué from the group announced: "We have slit the monks' throats." The killings reportedly took place May 21, 1996; their bodies were found nine days later.
Father Thierry Becker, of the Algerian diocese of Oran, was a guest of the monastery the night that the Muslim fundamentalists abducted Father Christian de Chergé, the prior, and the other six Trappists.
In recent statements to the Italian newspaper Avvenire, Father Becker asserted that he is recounting the legacy of the monks of Tibhirine.
Theirs was "a message of poverty, of abandonment in the hands of God and men, of sharing in all the fragility, vulnerability and condition of forgiven sinners, in the conviction that only by being disarmed will we be able to meet Islam and discover in Muslims a part of the total face of Christ," the priest said.
Father Becker is no stranger to strife in Algeria. He was vicar general in Oran when on Aug. 1, 1996, his own bishop, Pierre Lucien Claverie, 58, was killed along with an Algerian friend, Mohammed Pouchikhi. The Dominican prelate, born in Algeria, had dedicated his life to dialogue between Muslims and Christians. He had such a deep knowledge of Islam that he was often consulted on the subject by Muslims themselves.
A welcoming in truth
"Precisely the desire to welcome one another in truth, brought us together 10 year ago in Tibhirine," said Father Becker. "The meeting 'Ribat es-Salam,' Bond of Peace, was being held in those days, a group of Islamic-Christian dialogue which was oriented to share respective spiritual riches through prayer, silence….
"The Ribat still exists; it has not given up the challenge of communion with the spiritual depth of Islam. Thus we make our own the spiritual testimony of Father Christian de Chergé, whose monastic choice matured after an Algerian friend saved his life during the war of liberation, while that friend, a Muslim of profound spirituality, was killed in reprisal."
Father Becker continued: "'We are worshippers in the midst of a nation of worshippers,' the Prior used to say to his brothers in community, all of whom had decided to stay in Tibhirine even when violence was at its height.
"In the course of the decades, the monastery stripped itself of its riches, donated almost all of its land to the state, and shared its large garden with the neighboring village. The monks chose poverty, also in the sense of total abandonment to the will of God and of men.
"And great trust was born with the local people, so much so that 10 years after the events, nothing has disappeared from the monastery, everything has been respected. But the future of that holy place is in the hands of the Algerians."
The spiritual legacy of the monks also has caught the eye of a member of the International Theological Commission.
Archbishop Bruno Forte, who participated in a Vatican-organized videoconference on "Martyrdom and the New Martyrs," quoted the "spiritual testament" of the Trappist prior. He described it as a "splendid example of how martyrdom is the crowning of a whole life of faith and love of Christ and his Church."
The text of the testament follows.
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Testament of Dom Christian de Chergé
(opened on Pentecost Sunday, May 26, 1996)
Facing a GOODBYE ...
If it should happen one day -- and it could be today -- that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church and my family to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country.
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 in 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 what I have received from it.
I so often find there 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 naive 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 totally theirs, I thank God, who seems to have willed it entirely for the sake of that JOY in everything and in spite of everything.
In this THANK YOU, which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you, my friends of this place, along with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families -- you are the hundredfold granted as was promised!
And also you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you were doing:
Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this GOODBYE to be a "GOD BLESS" for you, too, because in God's face I see yours.
May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.
Algiers, 1st December 1993
Tibhirine, 1st January 1994