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The Monks of Tibhirine + Of Gods and Men

April 26, AD 2012 5 Comments

I have a deep love of Algeria. Which is weird, considering I’ve never visited, never heard much about it, and couldn’t tell you anything besides the fact that it’s in Africa…somewhere (northern border?). But, two of my favorite books have taken place there: Albert Camus’ The Stranger and John Kiser’s The Monks of Tibhirine.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the assassination of the monks in Tibhirine in 1997, it was apparently big news at the time (I was too young to read more than the comics). The events leading up to the martyrdom of the Trappist monks are complicated and deeply rooted in history. The Algerian Civil War (pitting various Islamic revel groups against the government) was underway; some say it’s a continuation of an earlier war that never really ended. One of the few oases of peace in the country was the monastery of Tibhirine, home to nine Trappist monks.

While the whole book is riveting, there are two threads throughout that I feel are particularly strong points. First, the radical, self-sacrificing love that the monks exhibit in every page of the book is inspirational. Although the monks knew that death was a likely possibility, their vows of stability kept them rooted to their monastery, ministering to the local community, even though they were of French nationality.

Certainly, God loves Algerians and he has without a doubt chosen to try them by giving them our lives. Now, do we really love them? Do we love them sufficiently? A minute of truth for each of us, and heavy responsibility in these times when our friends feel so unloved. Slowly, each of us is learning to integrate death into this gift, and with it all the other conditions of this ministry of co-existence demanding total gratuity. Some days all this seems rather unreasonable. Just as unreasonable as becoming a monk… (Dom Christian, community circular letter April 25th 1995)

Second, the inter-religious musings of the monks (as gleaned from their letters) between the Muslim community and monastery offer several profound thoughts on the status of Christian-Muslim relations, the joy of evangelization and witnessing to Christ in a sometimes hostile environment, and their hopes for a more peaceful relationship. Indeed, the monastery at Tibhirine grew up with the local town, and in the eyes of both the monks and the Muslim locals, each supported the other. Without one, the other would fail. This deep symbiosis between the two manifests in a variety of ways that transcend religious differences for the sake of love.

Not having the linguistic and religious knowledge to undertake dialogue with Islam, I feel called simply to listen. And it is God heard in his Word sent to us, who tells me to listen, to accept all this reality, foreign, different. Until I feel responsible for it: that the Spirit may lead it to the whole truth. And if we may walk this path together; so much the better! And we can speak or keep silent along the way (Father Christophe, Diary January 30th 1996)

Finally, if you don’t have time for the book, you can read more about the monks here, or watch the movie based on their final year or so in the monastery, Of Gods and Men. Like most movies, the book is better, and you’ll likely fail to understand some of the political and historical significance without the background of the book. But, the cinematography is masterfully done, and the inevitable ending is conveyed with far more potency than in the book. You can see a glimpse of that in the trailer below:

Have you read The Monks of Tibhirine, or have you see Of Gods and Men? What did you think?

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Allie Terrell is a 2010 convert to Catholicism after dabbling in a few different trains of religious thought. She graduated from Rose-Hulman in 2009 with a degree in computer science, and is now pursuing her doctorate in the hopes of teaching some day. When she can spare a few hours, Allie likes to visit religious sites and work on her photography. She blogs about her journeys at Here Is The Church.[/author_info] [/author]

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About the Author:

Allie Terrell is a 2010 convert to Catholicism after dabbling in a few different trains of religious thought. She graduated from Rose-Hulman in 2009 with a degree in computer science, and is now pursuing her doctorate in the hopes of teaching some day. When she can spare a few hours, Allie likes to visit religious sites and work on her photography. She blogs about her journeys at Here Is The Church.

  • Since I’m a bit older, I do remember the events, and have read the inspiring account. I think in many ways the Tibhirine monks follow a similar path as that of Blessed Charles de Foucould, who lived a loving witness among the Taureg people over a hundred years ago. If you love Algeria, you should get to know Blessed Charles! An amazing saint, and an early witness to the charity that must be at the foundation of the New Evangelization.

  • Unfortunately there were no conversions. Their deep sensibilities and lack of effort to evangelize helped them to live among the Muslims until the more radical elements of them executed these defenseless men of God. Having seen the movie and kept up with all the information available, there may have been a covert government effort to paint the Islamists as worse than they seemed by actually killing the monks themselves and making it look like the Islamists did this dastardly deed. So much confusion.

  • I forgot that “The Stranger” took place there!

    I saw ‘Of Gods and Men’ in theaters and cried. I wrote on it too ( and an awesome fellow contributor (who works over in the Middle East) gave some insight that I am going to re-paste now:

    “For those of us who do not keep abreast of matters Algerian, a brief bit of background here. Propped up by the West (chiefly France), Algeria’s cruel leaders suppressed democracy for 20-odd years until elections were held in 1991. The only organised challengers had been driven underground where they flourished, the Islamists, and lacking legitimate opposition parties of their own the middle classes had to choose between radicals and the regime, which was so despised that the moderate majority voted for the Islamists who won. The regime, Europe and America ignored the results (as the US did later when many Palestinians voted for Hamas). This hypocrisy drove the children of many middle-class Algerian moderates into the arms of the radical underground and began the bloodbaths.

    The oppression of moderate middle-classes through supporting dictators has been core US policy across the region, such as in Egypt, where satellite television and independent Arab broadcasters are much of the reason why the young protestors in Tahrir Square demanded democracy and not Al Qaeda. Had Mubarak not been toppled by popular protests, and had some power forced elections there, as in Algeria in 1991 the only organised opposition would have been the repressed Muslim Brotherhood, which struggles to get 15% approval ratings in Egyptian polls. Voters who loathed Mubarak would have nowhere else to turn, thanks to $3 billion in US aid a year helping the strongman to repress the doctors, teachers and tradesmen who would have built moderate parties of their own.

    Such oppression is still US policy for Saudi and Bahrain, while Washington mildly supports what looks to be unstoppable change in Yemen and dithers impotently over Syria. I have little doubt that such Western meddling causes so much local animosity against small harmless groups of Christians who lived in these places for 2,000 years – were the Christians not seen as being somehow linked to the West (incorrectly), there would be far less reason for them to be purged across the Middle East as seems to be happening now. Looking at this confusing and self-destructive behaviour by America, it is little wonder that so many Muslims conclude that America and Al Qaeda are somehow in cahoots: why else, they think, would the superpower destroy Christian communities and build power for the Islamists by helping dictators suppress middle-class democratic opponents? They don’t appreciate stupidity, I guess.”

  • (Great piece, Allie!!!)

  • Thanks for that Julie! It gives a succinct account of what the books takes chapters to do, and helps to put everything in context.