Mystery of the Martyred Monks
by Alain Woodrow
The TABLET 4 December 2010
A French film opened this week in Britain, telling of the kidnapping and murder of seven Trappist monks in Algeria in 1996. Islamic extremists were blamed,although it seems the truth is far more complicated and potentiallyembarrassing to both the Algerian and French Governments
Numerous books, articles, television documentaries and now a film have beenmade on the subject, but the mystery of the assassination of seven French Trappist monks in Algeria 14 years ago has never been fully elucidated.
The French movie, Des hommes et des dieua; directed by self-styledagnostic Xavier Beauvois, winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes this year andreleased in Britain as Of Gods and Men yesterday, simply relates the knownfacts without expressing a political opinion. It was an immediate success, withone and a half million people seeing the film in the first three weeks after its release in France in September.
Fresh information has come tolight recently: thanks to thedeclassification by the FrenchGovernment of some secret documents, suspicious clues have emerged and newhypotheses have been aired - notto mention the ongoinginvestigation by the French judiciary. But many questionsremain unanswered. Whokidnapped the monks in March 1996 in their Algerian monastery of Our Lady of Atlas in the village of Tibhirine at the foot of the Atlas Mountains? What role did the Islamist chiefDjamel Zitouni play? Who murdered the monks and why were they beheaded,their bodies never being found?
The history of the French Church in Algeria is a long and troubled one. After the colonisation of the country in 1830, a Trappist monastery was founded in Staoueli, near Algiers. In 1846, Pope Gregory XVI raised it to the status of abbey. The Emperor Napoleon III visited the abbey and Charles de Foucauldstayed there several times on his way to his hermitage in the Hoggar Mountains. The monastery was closed in 1904 for political and financialreasons.
In 1934, five Trappist monks from Slovenia, who had been expelled from France after the separation of Church and State in 1905, settled in Tibhirine(which means "garden") in a mansion built by an English settler in thenineteenth century, surrounded by a large agricultural estate.
In 1962, Algeria gained its independence from France after a bitter war lasting eight years. The Superior General of the Cistercian order in Rome planned to close the monastery a year later, but the Archbishop of Algiers,Cardinal Leon-Etienne Duval, dissuaded him from doing so, and Tibhirineremained the only Trappist monastery in the whole of north Africa. In 1964, eight new monks arrived at the monastery and, in 1976, the first meeting was held between the monks and a group of Muslim Sufi mystics. A movementcalled Ribat es-Salam (the "Link of Peace") was created to foster Christian-Muslim dialogue. In 1984, the monastery became a priory and Christian deCherge was elected prior.
In 1993, during the celebration of Christmas, a group of armed men forcedtheir way into the monastery, demanding medical assistance for Islamist rebels hiding in the mountains. Fr de Cherge parleyed with their leader, explaining that weapons were not allowed to enter the monastery, which is a place of prayer,and while he was willing to tend the wounded, he had no medical supplies to spare, since they were used to minister to the sick villagers. Three years later,an armed group broke in at night and kidnapped seven of the nine monks inresidence.
After the first incident at Christmas 1993, Christian de Cherge wrote a moving spiritual testament, found among his papers after his death, in which he showed his love for Algeria and its Muslim population. Addressing his family, the prior wrote: "If one day it should happen to me - and it could be today - tobe a victim of the terrorism that threatens to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church and my family to know that my life was given to God and to this country."
After a long meditation on his possibly violent death, "which I do not desire,since I cannot rejoice in the thought that the people I love will be accused ofmy murder", Christian de Cherge ended by forgiving his future assassin: "And I thank you too, friend of the final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, I say to you too 'thank you' and 'a- Dieu'. And may we findourselves, happy thieves together, in Paradise, ifit pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen! Inshallah!"
On 23 May 1996, two months after the disappearance of the seven monks, a statement issued in the name of the Muslim extremist Armed Islamic Group(GIA) claimed responsibility for the killing, two days previously, of themonks. On 30 May, the Algerian Government announced that their remains had been found near the city of Medea, 10 miles from the monastery. Both the Algerian and the French authorities have attempted to control media coverage,to ensure that the Islamic fundamentalists were blamed. But persistent doubtsabout the official version of events began to circulate.
The Cistercian Studies Quaterly, for example, hinted at the possible complicity of the army, and the Archdiocese of Algiers has repeatedly askedthe Algerian authorities for the results of their official investigation. No information has been forthcoming and the Archbishop of Algiers, Henri Teissier, expressed surprise that not a single person has been arrested.
Responsibility for the killings was initially attributed to Djamel Zitouni, the head of the GlA, but it is probable that he was a double agent, working for the secret services and, indirectly, for the army.
The most likely scenario has been pieced together by the former Procurator General of the Cistercian order in Rome, Fr Armand Veilleux, who has worked unceasingly to discover the truth about the martyrdom of the monks of Tibhirine. He published his findings in Le Monde in January 2003. According to him, the presence of the French monks in Algeria embarrassed the military, which was determined to force them to leave the country. Not only did the monks refuse to go, but they gave medical assistance to Islamist rebels andeven allowed them to use their telephone to contact accomplices abroad. The monks' phone was tapped in Algiers.
No doubt the army's intelligence service did not wish to liquidate the monks physically, but, rather, to have them kidnapped by the Islamists recruited by their agent Zitouni and then "liberated" by the army and put in a plane bound for Paris. But things went badly wrong. Zitouni lacked the necessary authority over the different Islamist groups and the hostages were taken from him by another Islamist leader, Abou Mosaab. "When Zitouni was sent to get them back, he was eliminated. Neither the Algerian nor the French intelligence services were then able to save the monks.
It is unlikely that the monks were killed by decapitation. They were probablyshot and then beheaded. There was a massive military intervention, with theuse of mortar shelling and napalm, in the area where the monks were held, andit has been suggested that an army helicopter strafed the camp where the monks were held captive, killing them by mistake. This would explain why theheads only were exposed since the bodies were disfigured by napalm andbullet wounds.
The Algerian and French authorities doubtless know more than they are admitting. But, while the Algerian regime can keep silent, the French Government is under the spotlight of public opinion. In fact, a new investigation is under way, led by an anti-terrorist judge, Marc Trevidic, who seems determined to solve the mystery.