“Artisans of peace”, “feeble flames of hope and humanity in an ocean of blood”, men and women of dialogue in Country where 99% of the overall population are Muslim. Deeply loved by the Algerian people. The memory of 19 Christian martyrs killed in the years 1994-1996, in a tragic decade that blood-stained the Country with massacres of journalists, human rights activists, intellectuals and imams, is still vivid in Algeria. Trappist monk Father Thomas Georgeon, postulator of the beatification cause, delineated their profiles. They will be beatified Dec. 8 at the Notre-Dame of Santa Cruz Shrine in Oran. Cardinal Angelo Becciu, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, will preside over the Mass and beatification rite. It’s a historic event: a beatification will be celebrated in a Muslim Country for the first time ever. “It’s an unprecedented event, for the Church and for Algeria. And it’s telling evidence of living memory”, pointed out Father Georgeon, who co-authored – with François Vayne –the book “Semplicemente cristiani. La vita e il messaggio dei beati martiri di Tibhirine”, published by Libreria Editrice Vaticana, whose presentation is scheduled for today.
Padre Georgeon, what is the legacy of the martyrs of Tibhirine?
One of the messages of their beatification is that we are all called to live out otherness, that is, to embrace diversity, even when our fellow other does not share our faith. Far too often we fear the other person and we prefer living amidst those who most resemble us. But I think that in today’s world diversity is a gift meant to enrich us, for it strengthens our identity. In fact, rather that causing its loss, in enables us to dig deep down into our roots, human and religious alike.
Who were the martyrs of Tibhirine? You have a deep knowledge of their profiles. Have you identified a common thread?
They were men and women religious who carried out their service in Algerian society as members of the Algerian Church, a small Church with only three thousand faithful, in a Country that is 99% Muslim. They all showed heartfelt dedication to the Algerian people. Many of them were a point of reference in the neighbourhood or the district in which they lived. They were present during the tragic years of Algeria to keep alive the feeble flame of humanity and hope. Until the very end they bore witness to their friendship with Jesus and thus with all the people that lived in their midst. Six martyrs are women religious, less known than the monks of Tibhirine. These Sisters devoted themselves to the education of young women in a centre located in a poor area of Algiers, providing support to disabled children and meeting the needs of the families. They were very simple people who lived out otherness in their daily life, cultivating relations with their Muslim fellow others, interweaving a dialogue that was not of a theological nature. It was a dialogue of life. They show us that living together is an attainable goal.
And for this they were loved also by the Muslims. How is Algeria preparing for this beatification?
They were artisans of peace, people who had the courage and the yearning to be close to the Algerian people who were experiencing a tragedy. The beatification ceremony in Oran, Algeria, the beatification of martyrs in a Muslim Country, is a unique event in the history of the Church. It’s an unprecedented event for the Church and for Algeria. It is telling of the living memory of these Blessed. Obviously in the 1990s 65% of today’s population was not born, yet their story is known. For example, in Oran, where Claverie served as a bishop for 15 years, the legacy of his service is still felt throughout the city. He was a man that was able to engage in dialogue with everyone, not only with Christians, with the world of culture, education, with political leaders. He created very strong friendships. The monks of Tibhirine were a silent presence in the Algerian Atlas Mountains range, and they are remembered in Algeria. Today their monastery has become a pilgrimage destination for hundreds of people, and 95% of the pilgrims are Muslim. Their witness is a challenge. We live surrounded by extreme individualism that leads us to give prominence to ourselves and to seek individual recognition in our relationship with others. But they challenge us with their self-giving, for they dedicated their whole life to others, as a gift, also through forgiveness.
How can we forgive someone who wanted to see us dead?
The spiritual testament of Christian de Chergé is deeply felt today. It’s one of the major texts of 20th century spirituality. In the testament he forgives those who were going to kill him. These martyrs chose to share the fate of the Algerian people until the moment of death. The decision to remain encompasses the will to show forgiveness towards those who one day would have killed them. They are often described as testimonies of hope, for amidst a sea of blood that swept across Algeria, they acted as a small flame of hope, hope in a better world.