Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
“What the world is in particular need of today is the credible witness of people…capable of opening the hearts and minds of many to the desire for God and for true life.” –Porta Fidei 15
Blessed Lucien Claverie, Bishop of Oran, together with eighteen companions killed by extremists in Algeria between 1994 and 1996, died in odium fidei, meaning in “hatred of the faith.”
The award-winning French film Of Gods and Men (2010) movingly portrayed the martyrs’ faith and struggle.
Starting in 1992, Algeria had been embroiled in civil war, leading to increasing violence from clashes between state-backed military forces and extremist rebels. Though the ostensible goal was to convert the Islamic society to democracy, the transition did not go smoothly. Close to 45,000 are estimated to have been killed in the struggle.
Catholics in Algeria represent a small minority. The Trappist monks of the Abbey of Our Lady of Atlas at Tibhirine knew they stood a good chance of being murdered if they remained.
On the night of March 27, 1996, twenty or more armed men attacked the monastery and kidnapped seven Trappist monks. Two more hid and escaped detection. However, because the phone lines had been cut and a curfew was in effect, they were unable to contact police until the next morning.
A May 23 statement from the fundamentalist Armed Islamic Group claimed that the monks had been beheaded two months after the kidnapping. Others claim the monks were killed by an Algerian Air Force airstrike and beheaded afterward. Whatever the case, their heads were recovered on May 30, and buried in the Tibhirine convent. The bodies have never been found.
Nearly three years before the abduction, French Father Christian de Chergé, the monastery’s prior, had written a letter indicating that he and his fellow monks were willing to offer themselves as a sacrifice for the Algerians whom they served.
That letter, now known as the “Spiritual Testament of Christian de Chergé,” has become a contemporary emblem of one of Christ’s seven last “words” on the cross: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”
“When the time comes,” Father de Chergé wrote, “I would like to be able to have that stroke of lucidity which would permit me to ask forgiveness of God and of my brothers in humanity, forgiving wholeheartedly, at the same time, whoever my killer might be.”
“May we meet each other again, happy thieves, in paradise, should it please God.”
Less well-known are the facts surrounding the assassination of Algerian-born Bishop Claverie himself, so devoted a champion of interfaith dialogue that he was mourned by many in the Algerian Muslim community. On August 1, 1996, several months after Tibhirine abductions, the bishop was killed along with his driver by a remote-controlled bomb.
Seven people were convicted of the killings and sentenced to death. The Catholic Church of Algeria successfully petitioned to have their death sentences commuted.
In January 2018, Pope Francis recognized Bishop Claverie, seven Trappist monks, and eleven other religious men and women from France, Spain, Tunisia, and Belgium as martyrs. They were beatified on December 8, 2018.
Heather King is a contemplative laywoman and author of several books. She blogs online at www.heather-king.com.