Yesterday's New York Times ran an interesting story about Henri Tessier, the elderly archbishop of Algeria, "where he has been witness to what he says is the slow 'death of a church.'" The immediate purpose of a Christian presence in Algeria, he claims, "is not to convert Muslims to Christianity or to minister to a dwindling Christian flock or even to engage in a doctrinal dialogue with Muslims, which he said he believed lead to confrontation. The importance of the church in a Muslim land, he said, is to act as a kind of living exhibition of Western values for Muslims who are otherwise cut off from the Western world."
Back on May 24, 1996, a group of Islamic terrorists announced that they had "slit the throats" of seven French Trappist monks whom they had kidnapped from the monastery of Tibherine in Algeria and held as hostages for two months. The superior of the monastery, Father Christian de Cherge, had left with his family a testament "to be opened in the event of my death," and after his murder, First Things published an English translation by the monks of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey in England:
If it should happen one day--and it could be today--that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all 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 this country. I ask them to accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to be able to associate such a death with the many other deaths that were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and 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 which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a clear space which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of all 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 do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if this people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder. It would be to pay too dearly for what will, perhaps, be called "the grace of martyrdom," to owe it 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 scorn with which Algerians as a whole can be regarded. I know also the caricature of Islam which a certain kind of Islamism encourages. It is too easy to give oneself a good conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are something different; they are a body and a soul. I have proclaimed this often enough, I believe, in the sure knowledge of what I have received in Algeria, in the respect of believing Muslims--finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel I learned at my mother's knee, my very first Church.
My death, clearly, will appear to justify those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic: "Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!" But these people must realize that my most avid curiosity will then be satisfied. 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 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 to refashion the likeness, delighting in the differences.
For this life given up, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wished 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 brothers and sisters and their families--the hundredfold granted as was promised!
And you also, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, for you also I wish this "thank you"--and this adieu--to commend you to the God whose face I see in yours.
And may we find each other, happy "good thieves," in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen.
Father Christian de Cherge