Abbot calls his murderer 'last minute friend'
By LOIS McGINNIS
Although a year has passed, I still remember picking up the spring
1996 issue of the Bulletin of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue. It
contained an account of the murder of seven Cistercian monks in Algeria by the
fundamentalist Islamic army, the GIA.
To be sure, the monks were not the only victims. Over the past
five years, more than 50,000 people have died at the hands of the GIA. While
most lived in isolated areas and had no advance warning or opportunity to
leave, the monks knew of the danger. They could have left but chose to
For two years, the death threat they faced was very real.
Nevertheless, they continued their life of prayer and service to the people
around them. During this time, the abbot, Dom Christian de Cherge, wrote what I
believe is a powerful message to be read should their fears of being killed
come to pass.
My purpose is to provide an introduction to the abbot's message
and briefly describe the situation in which he wrote it. In doing so, I draw
upon material I obtained from Cistercian acquaintances and from the
The revolutionaries came to the monastery on Christmas Eve 1993
demanding that the Cistercians support the activities of the GIA with economic,
medical and logistic help.
Facing the intruders, Abbot Christian told them the monks' creed
forbade participation in violent activities. "You have no choice," the armed
militants said. "Yes, we do," the abbot replied. He added that the
revolutionaries were interrupting the community's preparations to celebrate the
birth of the Prince of Peace. At that, the fundamentalist band apologized and
For 60 years the monks of the Abbey of Our Lady of Atlas, in a
remote area of Algeria's Atlas Mountains, had developed ecumenical
relationships with neighboring Muslims, had shared their garden produce and
introduced irrigation. The abbey served as a retreat center for Algeria's few
Christians and as a site for ecumenical meetings. Fr. Luc, a physician,
attended all who came with medical needs.
As the danger to the monks increased, religious and political
leaders urged them to leave temporarily. But the monks declined, saying they
wanted to maintain the life of prayer and service that brought them to Algeria.
Well aware of danger, Abbot Christian's daily prayer during these days was,
"Father, disarm them and disarm me."
On March 27, 1996, an ecumenical retreat was underway at the
abbey. Two monks slept with the retreatants while seven others remained in
their own quarters. After the seven did not show up for the retreatants' prayer
vigils as expected, an investigation found they had been abducted.
The French government received an offer to exchange the monks for
imprisoned GIA leaders. The government said no, and on the morning of May 21,
1996, Algerian radio announced that the throats of the seven monks had been
After the bodies were found on May 30, apologetic Algerian leaders
assisted the Cistercians with funeral services in Algiers and with safe conduct
back to the monastery, where neighborhood Muslims had tearfully prepared
Among Abbot Christian's belongings was an envelope with
instructions that it be opened and read on Pentecost, 1996. What he wrote
|Testament of Dom Christian De Cherge, OCSO
on Pentecost Sunday 1996
If it should happen one day -- and it could be today
that I become a victim of the terrorism that now seems ready to
all the foreigners in Algeria,
I would like my community, my
church, my family,
to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this
To accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to
this brutal departure.
I would like them to pray for me:
How worthy would
I be found of such an offering?
I would like them to be able to associate
this death with so many other equally violent ones
allowed to fall into the
indifference of anonymity.
My life has no more value than any other. Nor any
In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood.
lived long enough to know that I share in the evil
that seems, alas, to
prevail in the world,
and even in that which would strike me blindly.
should like, when the time comes, to have a space of lucidity
enable me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings,
the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me
I could not desire such a death.
It seems to me
important to state this.
I don't 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 be called, perhaps, the "grace of
to owe this to an Algerian, whoever he may be,
he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.
I know the
contempt in which Algerians taken as a whole can be engulfed.
I know, too,
the caricatures of Islam that encourage a certain idealism.
It is too easy
to give oneself a good conscience
in identifying this religious way with the
fundamentalist ideology of its extremists.
For me, Algeria and Islam is
something different. It is a body and a soul.
I have proclaimed it often
enough, I think, in view of
and in the knowledge of what I have received
finding there so often that true strand of the gospel learned at
my mother's knee,
my very first church,
precisely in Algeria, and already
respecting believing Muslims.
My death, obviously, will appear to confirm
those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic:
"Let him tell us now what
he thinks of it!"
but these must know that my insistent curiosity will then
be set free.
This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills:
gaze in that of the Father,
to contemplate with Him His children of Islam as
He sees them,
all shining with the glory of Christ,
fruit of His Passion,
filled with the Gift of the Spirit
whose secret joy will always be to
and to refashion the likeness, playing with the
This life lost, totally mine and totally theirs,
thank God who seems to have wished it entirely
for the sake of that JOY in
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, O my friends of this place,
besides my mother and father, my
sisters and brothers and their families,
a hundredfold as was promised!
And you too, my last minute friend, who will not know what you are doing,
Yes, for you too I say this THANK YOU AND THIS "A-DIEU" -- to commend you to
this God in whose face I see yours.
And may we find each other, happy "good
thieves" in Paradise,
if it please God, the Father of us both.
Lois McGinnis, who does spiritual direction and leads retreats,
lives in Wilmington, Del.
National Catholic Reporter,
May 16, 1997