As the Western world reels from repeated terror attacks by Islamic extremists and grapples with the continued threat of violence, there could hardly be a more timely and hopeful story than that of Christian de Chergé, a remarkable peacemaker featured in our e-book Why Forgive? In 2010, his gripping story was brought to life as the major motion picture Of Gods and Men by French director Xavier Beauvois. De Chergé and his fellow monks living in Algeria were murdered at the hands of Islamic extremists. Amazingly, de Chergé had written a letter forgiving his persecutors in advance.
Through James Christensen, the prior of a Trappist monastery in Rome, I recently learned of a remarkable story of someone who not only forgave his persecutors, but did so before the fact. In May 1996, the GIA, a radical Muslim faction active in Algeria, kidnapped seven of James’s fellow Trappists in the Atlas Mountains and threatened to hold them hostage until France released several of their own imprisoned compatriots. Several weeks passed, and still the French government refused. In the end, the GIA killed the monks by beheading them.
All France was horrified, and every Catholic church in France tolled its bells at the same time in the monks’ memory. What struck me most about the tragedy, however, was something that had quietly foreshadowed it two years before. The prior of the Algerian monastery, Christian de Chergé, had had a strange premonition that he would soon die a violent death, and wrote a letter forgiving his future assassins, sealed it, and left it with his mother in France. Opened only after his murder, it read in part:
If it should happen one day – and it could be today – that I become a victim of the terrorism that now seems 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 Algeria; and that they accept that the sole Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure.
I would like, when the time comes, to have a space of clearness that would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who will strike me down.
I could not desire such a death; it seems to me important to state this: How could I rejoice if the Algerian people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder?
My death, obviously, will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But they should know that…for this life lost, I give thanks to God. In this “thank you,” which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, my last-minute friend who will not have known what you are doing…I commend you to the God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.
Who was de Chergé, and what was the source of his deep convictions regarding peace and forgiveness? According to a book about his religious order, The Monks of Tibhirine, it all began in 1959, when de Chergé was sent to Algeria with the French Army’s “pacification” forces. While there he befriended Mohammed, a Muslim policeman, and together they took weekly walks to discuss politics, culture, and theology. De Chergé tells the following story about their friendship:
Since the day when he had asked me, quite unexpectedly, to teach him to pray, Mohammed made a habit of coming to talk with me regularly. He is a neighbor, and we have a long history of sharing. . . . One day, he found the perfect formula for calling me to order and demanding a meeting: “It's been a long time since we've dug our well!” . . . Once, to tease him, I asked the question: “And at the bottom of our well, what will we find? Muslim water or Christian water?” He gave me a look, half-amused and half-rueful: “Come on now, we've spent all this time walking together, and you're still asking me this question! You know very well that at the bottom of that well, what we'll find is God's water!”
One subject that came up again and again was the tense relationship between Algeria’s Christians (its French colonizers) and Muslims (its native population). On one of these walks, a squad of Algerian rebels ambushed the two men. De Chergé, wearing his army fatigues, was sure his end had come. Then Mohammed stepped in between his friend and the attackers and told them to leave de Chergé alone: “He is a godly man.”
Amazingly, they let both men go. But this act of bravery cost Mohammed his life: he was found murdered in the street the next day. The episode gripped de Chergé for days—and completely changed his life. He decided to commit himself to God and to the cause of peace. When his tour of duty ended he returned to France and entered a Trappist monastery. Later he studied to become a priest and asked to be transferred to an Algerian base. This wish was granted and he moved back to Africa, eventually becoming the ecclesiastical head of a rural district in the Atlas Mountains.
As abbot, de Chergé made decisions that his overseas superiors saw as unusual and even unwise. Instead of proselytizing, he offered the locals employment, medical care and lessons in literacy and French. He also organized an annual interfaith summit to promote Muslim-Christian dialogue. He even invited Muslims to stay at the compound of Notre-Dame dé Atlas, his monastery. By this, de Chergé aimed to show the world that Muslims and Christians can live together under one God or Allah. As he explained it, “the only way for us to give witness is… to be what we are in the midst of banal, everyday realities.”
Over time, despite de Chergé’s efforts—or perhaps because of them?— the GIA grew angry with the Trappists, whom they saw as meddlers. So it was that they were finally kidnapped, held hostage, and murdered. To many people, the death of de Chergé and his fellow monks proves the worst stereotypes of Islam. But to him it was the expected cost of being a peacemaker.
To me, it is a stark reminder of the work that must be done worldwide (in many places, it is questionable if it has even begun) to spread the healing message of forgiveness. In a time when so many people are willing to die in ongoing armed conflicts between the “Christian” West and the “menace” of Islam—whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Algeria, or anywhere else—where are there men and women who are willing to die for the sake of peace? Certainly de Chergé was one of these. To quote once more from his remarkable farewell letter:
I know the caricatures which a certain Islamic ideology encourages and which make it easy for some to dismiss the religion as hateful…But such people should know that at last I will be able to see the children of Islam as He sees them—He whose secret joy is to bring forth our common humanity amid our differences.