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Abbot calls his murderer 'last minute friend'


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 stay.

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 Bulletin.

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 left.

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 slit.

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 graves.

Among Abbot Christian's belongings was an envelope with instructions that it be opened and read on Pentecost, 1996. What he wrote follows.

Testament of Dom Christian De Cherge, OCSO
Opened 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 encompass
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 country.
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 less value.
In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood.
I have 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.
I should like, when the time comes, to have a space of lucidity
that would enable me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings,
and at the same time to 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 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 martyrdom"
to owe this to an Algerian, whoever he may be,
especially if 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 from it,
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:
immerse my 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 establish communion
and to refashion the likeness, playing with the differences.

This life lost, totally mine and totally theirs,
I 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. AMEN!

Lois McGinnis, who does spiritual direction and leads retreats, lives in Wilmington, Del.

National Catholic Reporter, May 16, 1997