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The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria

The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria

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by John Kiser

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"The inspiration for the major motion picture "Of Gods and Men"

A true story of Christian love set against political terrorism in contemporary Algeria.

In the spring of 1996, militants of the Armed Islamic Group, today affiliated with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, broke into a Trappist monastery in war-torn Algeria. Seven monks were taken hostage,


"The inspiration for the major motion picture "Of Gods and Men"

A true story of Christian love set against political terrorism in contemporary Algeria.

In the spring of 1996, militants of the Armed Islamic Group, today affiliated with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, broke into a Trappist monastery in war-torn Algeria. Seven monks were taken hostage, pawns in a murky negotiation to free imprisoned terrorists. Two months later, the severed heads of the monks were found in a tree not far from Tibhirine; their bodies were never recovered.

The village of Tibhirine had sprung up around the monastery because it was a holy place, protected by the Virgin Mary, who is revered by Christians and Muslims alike. But after 1993, as the Algerian military government's war against Islamic terrorism widened, napalm, helicopters, and gunfire became regular accompaniments to their monastic routine.

The harmony between these Christian monks and the Muslim neighbors of Tibhirine contrasts with the fear and distrust among Algerians fighting over power and what it means to be a Muslim. Woven into the story of the kidnapping and the political disintegration of Algeria is a classic account of Christian martyrdom. But these monks were not martyrs to their faith, as preaching Christianity to Muslims is forbidden in Algeria, but rather martyrs to their love of their Muslim neighbors, whom they refuse to desert in their hour of need.

Editorial Reviews

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Beautiful Swimmer William W. Warner

A must read shocker for those unaware of recent Algerian history. Beautifully written.
From the Publisher

“Kiser is the first American to have told the full story . . . What makes this book so unusual and yet useful for students is the way the author has combined solid research and profound analysis with compelling writing and personal engagement in the story. It is part mystery, part love story and part historical journalism of a very high order. There are precious few such books on the market. The Monks of Tibhirine brings together history, politics and stories of faith that is lived amid fear and violence in a style that is dramatic, inspiring and extremely educational. In this sense it is an excellent tool for teaching students about the Muslim world in which religion infuses life . . . This is an extraordinary story of the meeting of two peoples within the Abrahamic tradition who believed that, the violence notwithstanding, the destiny of all of them was to live together joined in charity and friendship. Kiser's book, as history and witness to faith, would be a valuable companion for many courses on religious studies, history and cultural studies of the Arab and Muslim worlds, but most of all for courses that seek to advance Christian Muslim understanding. I am going to be using it for my religion and conflict resolution course and am also recommending it as well to the Middle Eastern studies department.” —Andrea Bartoli, Director, Center for International Conflict Resolution, Columbia University

“Well-written and extremely thoroughly researched . . . A valuable addition to the literature about modern Algeria, and I plan to recommend it to all officers going there on assignment . . . Its story is couched within the larger--and tragic--setting of the country, and one can learn a lot about the latter by studying this case study.” —Peter Bechtold, Chair, Near East and North Africa, Foreign Service Institute

“Compelling . . . An exceptionally well-researched and deftly written account of the people and events involved in the tragedy.” —Colman McCarthy, The Washington Post Book World

“I teach a course in the history of the relations between Muslims and Christians, usually called 'Christians and the Challenge of Islam.' Usually the students are upper level undergraduates, with an occasional graduate student. For this audience The Monks of Tibhirine is a good assignment because it interweaves religious and monastic history with modern social and political issues in a context that can almost serve as the icon for the difficulties of Christian/Muslim relations in the the Islamic milieu in the contemporary period. The book is excitingly written in a way that carries the reader along with a yen to know how it all turns out. That's an important feature for any book one hopes an undergraduate will read. These are the reasons why I recommend the book to my students.” —Sidney H. Griffith, Professor of Syriac Patristics and Christian Arabic, Catholic University of America

“For those interested in Algeria, in Islamism and the disciplined spiritual life, this book is a must . . . Kiser makes the case that living together in community is possible for those religious peoples with an expansive inclusive understanding of their faiths; the Trappists had such a large attractive vision of Christianity . . . and large hearted Muslims met them half way.” —Gary Hamburg, professor of history, Notre Dame University

“Kiser's book addresses Christian-Muslim relations in both a personal and balanced way . . . It provides an important discussion of issues Algerians (and other Muslim countries) will have to deal with for generations to come. I would recommend The Monks of Tibhirine for use in classes.” —Sulayman Nyang, Howard University

“This book is not the first written about the monks of Tibhirine. It is the first written in English, but it might well be the best among all those books written in any language so far. I was struck by the accurate rendering of the portrait of each of the monks, by the description of both the local and national contexts of the events, by the depth of his comprehension of the Cistercian calling, and the vocation of our Algerian Church . . . Thank you to the author for the conscientiousness of his work and to have written about this drama in a way that it deserves.” —Father Gilles Nicolas, diocesan priest in Algiers

“Despite being a story of tragedy, The Monks of Tibhirine is ultimately an uplifting book and an educational one. Kiser offers lengthy carefully researched history of the political turmoil in Algeria and the on-going terrorist violence in the country.” —Carmela Ciuraru, The San Francisco Chronicle

“The riches contained in this book are many and varied . . . Chief among them may be the heightened appreciation that it offers for the rigors and allure of monasticism. Committed to lives of prayer and contemplation they became men of action summoned to achieve greatness and bravery under conditions of enormous duress. Life in what most of us call the 'real world,' appears pale by comparison.” —Andrew Bacevitch, Director, Center for International Relations, Boston University, author of First Things

“Kiser argues that this murderous incident was a breaking point in the war of Islamic radicals against Algeria's military government--it turned the majority of Algerians against the radicals . . . Mr. Kiser tells the story well, at once sad and inspiring, of very good men who took their vocation seriously and died for it.” —Roger Kaplan, The Wall Street Journal

“In the wake of the September terrorist attack on the United States, The Monks of Tibhirine gives us an essential lens through which to examine the violent forces rending the Muslim world. With deep compassion toward all parties to this tragic drama, John Kiser uses the story of these modern Christian monks to provide a microcosm of a struggle underway from Morocco to the Philippines. His book paints a surprising picture of the bonds of faith between Christians and Muslims, and provides a ray of hope for the future.” —Dan Morgan, senior editor, The Washington Post

“A must read shocker for those unaware of recent Algerian history. Beautifully written.” —William W. Warner, Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Beautiful Swimmers

“I could not put this excellent book down. I took it everywhere I went and read it when I was stuck in traffic, waiting for an appointment, before going to bed. The book works on so many levels. The prior, Christian de Cherge articulated what I have been trying to convey--that Muslims intuitively view themselves as keepers of Christian and Jewish 'orthodoxy,' not in the contemporary, but in the historical sense. The Trappist superior was a mystical adventurer who was convinced that Muslims were saved by their Islam and that Islam had something to tell Christians. The book touched me deeply.” —Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf, American Sufi Muslim Association

“I felt bereft when I finished . . . The Monks of Tibhirine is a well- researched, thoroughly engaging story of the Christian presence in Algeria today. This is an important book for the informed reader and for specialists interested in Islam, its relation to Christianity, and in the delicate dance of politics and religion in Muslim societies.” —Dawn Chatty, Dulverton Senior Research Fellow, International Development Center, Oxford University

The Monks of Tibhirine is a work of great sensitivity . . . his insightful prose weaves complex themes from Algeria's history into a single life-affirming whole. It transforms tragedy into hope for the future of Christian-Muslim relations . . . Most inspiring!” —Abdul Aziz Said, Director, Center for Global Peace, American University

“An intellectual and emotional journey through the transcendent themes of faith, hate, war and reconciliation. The Monks of Tibhirine is not only a penetrating account of recent historical events, but of ideas and ideologies driving them.” —Susan Eisenhower, Director, Eisenhower Institute, editor Islam in Central Asia

“John Kiser's fascinating account of the 1996 brutal massacre of the seven trappist monks in Algeria is situated well in its historical context. The complexities of the relationship between the various factions of the Muslims and the Christian monks of French origin is presented here in a lucid and engaging way. Now at last we have complete understanding of this heart-rending tragedy of our times. Highly recommended.” —Brother Patrick Hart, O.C.S.O., Monk of Gethsemani and General Editor of the Thomas Merton Journals

“Can Christians and Muslims live together in peace and spiritual solidarity? Do these two spiritual traditions have anything to teach each other? The small Catholic monastery of Notre Dame de l'Atlas in Islamic Algeria stood as a witness proclaiming a bold yes to each of these questions . . . The French Trappists always stressed the 'notes that are in harmony' . . . Recommended for larger public libraries and academic libraries as well as special collections on Islam, monastic studies, and North Africa.” —Steve Young, McHenry City College, Crystal Lake Illinois, Library Journal

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St. Martin's Press
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The nearest to the faithful are those who say “We are Christians.” That is because there are priests and monks among them and because they are free of pride.

—KORAN 5:82

From a certain angle, the Basilica of Notre Dame d’Afrique looks like a giant camel on its haunches, contemplating the Aleppo pine-and eucalyptus-covered hills that form an amphitheater around the port of Algiers. Its tall neck is formed by an elegant Byzantine tower connected to a large redbrick body, surmounted by an enormous gilded cupola that for over a hundred years was a beacon for Christian Europe to come and civilize the land the Arabs called the maghreb—“where the sun sets.” The newcomers did their work well. Frenchmen sailing into the Bay of Algiers always experienced a sense of homecoming and breathtaking beauty. Algiers was the Nice of North Africa, France’s Mediterranean pearl, with promenades along the sea, bustling cafés, beautiful gardens, elegant women, and imperial architecture. La Grande Poste, la rue de la République, la place Delacroix provided a reassuring sense of familiarity.

In the late spring of 1996, Algiers looked like a scabrous bag lady. Once admired for the brilliant snowiness of the whitewashed Casbah rising up the Sahel Hills, “La Blanche,” as she was formerly known, now reeked of decay and failure, with crumbling, pockmarked buildings, ubiquitous stray cats, and putrid, garbage-filled streets. Churches that had been mosques before the French arrived were again mosques. Notre-Dame d’Afrique is one of the last citadels of a Christian presence that measures itself in hundreds in a country of 29 million Muslims.

Sunday afternoon, June 2, mourners had gathered on the steps to watch seven coffins being carried into the basilica. There were simple peasants in skullcaps, sunbaked workers in ill-fitting dress jackets, and a scattering of European men and women. Each casket was covered with a blanket of red roses, supported by four military cadets in the traditional ceremonial dress of the French fireman: white spats, gray uniform with red stripes down the pants, topped by a silver helmet of medieval proportions, polished to a mirror finish. Soldiers with Kalashnikovs patrolled the area around the cathedral and kept watch from rooftops. Killing people who came to the funerals of their victims was a favorite tactic of the terrorists.

Inside the massive rotunda, the caskets were placed next to yet one more. Monsignor Léon-Etienne Duval, many would say later, was also a casualty of the massacre. The much-loved ninety-two-year-old cardinal had struggled for fifty years for reconciliation between Europeans and Arabs. The monks were “the lungs” of the Church in Algeria, he liked to say. Their small community in the Atlas Mountains provided spiritual oxygen to Christians and Muslims alike. When he learned that the kidnapped monks had been executed, he told those at his bedside that he felt “crucified,” and died a week later.

Behind the altar stood the “black Virgin”—named for the color of her aged bronze skin—gazing down from on top of an azure blue-tiled tabernacle. The words PRAY FOR US AND THE MUSLIMS were painted on the cupola above her head. That day, her prayers were needed more than ever. The Trappist abbot general, Father Bernardo Olivera, was one of many churchmen who addressed the congregation, but his words were the most heartfelt.

What can a monk say about his brother monks? I know that our order was founded on our commitment to silence, work, and praise of God. But we know there are times to speak as well as times to be quiet. After fifty years of silence, our seven brothers—Christian, Luc, Christophe, Célestin, Bruno, Michel and Paul—today have become spokesmen for all the stifled voices and anonymous individuals who have given their lives for a more humane world. Our seven monks lend their voices today to me as well. They, and others like them, were living manifestations of the good news of the Gospels: a life freely given in the spirit of love is never a life lost, but one found again in Him who is Life….

They showed that we must enter into the world of others, be that “other” a Christian or a Muslim. If “the other” does not exist, there can be no love of “the other.” Let us learn to go beyond ourselves and to be enriched by those who are different…. Our brothers lives were the fruit of this Church in Algeria and of the many Algerians who over the years welcomed them and valued their presence. To the Church of Algeria and to you Algerians, fellow worshippers of one God, I say: A heartfelt thank you for the respect and the love you have shown to our monks.”

Other homilies were given by Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, who had come from Paris; Archbishop Henry Teissier of Algiers; and Cardinal Francis Arinze, Pope John Paul’s personal envoy. When the service ended, senior officials of the Algerian government, members of the diplomatic corps, and hundreds of ordinary Algerians in the overflowing congregation filed past the photograph set on each monk’s coffin. Many who had known them personally embraced their pictures and whispered tearful good-byes to the smiling faces. Outside, one mourner was overheard saying that the ceremony was too grand and pompous for the men who had lived so humbly among simple peasants.

After the service, a reporter from the Parisian weekly L’Express had questions for Pierre Claverie, the outspoken square-jawed bishop of the neighboring diocese of Oran. “The French government told its citizens to leave three years ago. What sense is there for the Church to stay in the face of so much danger? Are you being martyrs?” he asked.

“No. There are certain groups here who do not accept us,” Bishop Claverie replied, “but the Church is Algerian, not French, and has existed under Algerian law since 1964. The government can cancel our visas anytime it wishes, but it doesn’t because Christians are respected here even though we are a tiny community. Anyone who wants is free to leave. Those who stay are committed to the Church’s presence here. If we leave, those who want ethnic and religious purification will win. A good shepherd does not abandon his flock when wolves come.”

Back in France, memorial services were being held throughout the country. Many questions hung in the air: Why were the monks killed? What kind of Islam murders godly men in God’s name? Why were Christians tending a Muslim flock?

THE MONKS OF TIBHIRINE Copyright © 2002 by John W. Kiser

Meet the Author

John Kiser is the author of Communist Entrepreneurs and Stefan Zweig: Death of a Modern Man. A former international technology broker, he now lives with his family in Sperryville, Virginia.

John Kiser is the author of Communist Entrepreneurs and Stefan Zweig: Death of a Modern Man. A former international technology broker, he now lives with his family in Sperryville, Virginia

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The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
EKC More than 1 year ago
This book will raise your faith in the human spirit. It's a true story and contemporary. It will provide a different prospective on both faith and different cultures. I hightly recommend it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Kiser has written a compelling and inspiring account that humanizes the tragedy of the monks of Tibhirine and of the Algerian civil war more generally. What I find particularly impressive is Kiser's refusal to exploit the subject matter, and his determination to dig below the surface level and take the drama of events to a deeper level. He provides the necessary information to situate the drama of the monks within a much larger context of politics, history, and culture, and finds hope in the midst of suffering. Kiser is aware that there are two rights and too many wrongs in Muslim-Christian relations. He affirms that, by remembering what is _right_ on both sides of the cultural divide, we can find sufficient energy, resolve, and inspiration to build bridges of understanding between two estranged religious and cultural traditions. I would recommend this book to anyone who shares Kiser's desire to truly _understand_ what has 'gone wrong' and what might 'go right' in Muslim-Christian relations. If used in an academic classroom environment, Kiser's well-researched and thoughtful prose narrative would provide valuable supplementation to more standard textbook treatment of Muslim-Christian relations and the modern Middle East.