The Story

The Monks of Tibhirine is the true story of Christians willing to die serving a Muslim flock during the political nightmare that unfolds in Algeria during the 1990s. The decapitation of seven French Trappists kidnapped from their monastery in the village of Tibhirine provides the thread for this real life drama of sacrificial love-of Christians who put their lives at risk for their Muslim friends, and Muslims who risk death for Christians.

The village of Tibhirine had sprung up around the monastery because it was a holy place protected by the Virgin Mary, revered by Christians and Muslims alike. But napalm, helicopters, and gunfire had become regular accompaniments to the monastic routine as the violence engulfing Algeria drew closer to the isolated cloister high in the Atlas Mountains.


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 trimmed with blue tile, 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. French visitors sailing into the Bay of Algiers 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 cafes, elegant gardens with elegant women, and imperial architecture. La Grande Poste, la rue de la Republique, la place Delacroix provided a reassuring sense of familiarity.

In the spring of 1996, Algiers, “la blanche,” looked like a scabrous bag lady. Once admired for the brilliant snowiness of the white washed Casbah rising up the Sahel Hills, she now reeked of decay and failure with crumbling, pock marked 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 the last citadel of a Christian presence that measures itself in hundreds in a country of twenty nine million Muslims.

On Sunday afternoon, June 2, mourners had gathered on the steps to watch the seven coffins be carried into the basilica. There were simple fellaghs in white skullcaps, sun baked Algerian working men 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 sapeurs pompiers in the traditional dress of the French fireman: white spats, gray uniform with red stripes down the pants, topped by an oversized silver helmet of medieval proportions, polished to a mirror finish. Soldiers with Kalashnikovs patrolled the area around the basilica and kept watch from rooftops. Killing people who came to the funerals of their victims was a favorite tactic of the terrorists…

Duval was named Archbishop of Algiers in February 1954, which also made him the titular head of the Christian community in French Algeria. He sent shock waves through the European congregation on the occasion of his investiture at the recently built church of Sacre-Coeur, whose oddly modern design resembled a nuclear cooling tower. As if conscious of an impending disaster, Duval warned, “Muslims and Jews know that our Christianity requires us to love them, too. To love God means to love all his children as brothers. Muslims and Jews know that when we don’t follow these demands, we betray our ideal as Christians…

Throughout the seven-year conflict, Duval never ceased to stress the apolitical calling of a priest. “There is nothing more pernicious than the linkage of politics and religion” was another statement often heard on Duval’s lips. Both suffered, Politics “denatured” religion and religion “confused” politics. Yet, following Pius XI, he also made a distinction between the “politics of parties” and la grande politique. His priests were reminded to function as priests only, and to stay out of all party politics. “No party speaks for God,” he told them. Their calling, he stressed, was to protect the dignity of all people. But the Church also had to be concerned with the common good, and the problems of living together in the larger sense. It could not preach the Good News of the Gospels and be indifferent to injustice…

Many of his own clergy had been baptized in the rivers of colonial prejudice and Algerie Francaise. “Universal love” and “justice for all,” if it was to include Arabs and Muslims, was not in their catechism. As the “events” that had required the deployment of 500,000 soldiers became a bloody snowball rolling out of control, Duval would be called the “Muslims’ bishop” for spreading the subversive idea that Christians should be friends with Muslims, sharing equal rights…

On October 29th, 1989, God sent a message to Algeria’s rulers. The ancient city of Tipasa, a favorite weekend getaway for rich Algerians, was rocked by an earthquake. Eighty-four people were killed and hundreds were injured. The Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) was the first to arrive with help. Its network of mosques around the country quickly mobilized to collect food, clothing, and blankets. FIS mosques provided up to fifteen thousand dinars about $150 to the families of the dead. Two weeks later, on Friday November 10, the Es Sunna mosque in Bab el Oued was overflowing. Ali Benhadj was delivering a Jeremiad, telling his listeners exactly what the earthquake meant. The earthquake was divine punishment, and a warning of worse things to come. The gross inequalities of wealth and moral decay – prostitution, alcoholism, drugs, and family disintegration – had sprung from one source: Algeria’s corrupt, ungodly elite.

“Our so-called leaders speak of socialism and equality…of being ‘by the people’ and ‘for the people.’ But they are rich and you are poor. We believe in God and his Apostle, but not their fairy tales and nonsense. Our leaders have governed so long with lies and deception, they don’t know anymore where the sun rises, their children’s names, or the color of the sky. They are so lost in the vomit of their deceptions they think they have fooled us.”

The ruling elites spoke French, used French law and the French police system, lived in the old colonial villas in the cooler, fashionable heights of Algiers – Hydra, El Biar, Birmandreis; they sent their children to French schools and maintained cozy relations with French government authorities.

“They are like the French before them. They believe God can be separated from life, visited perhaps once a week in a mosque. They have adopted the so-called Enlightenment thinking of the French, which is at root Greek, an insolent idea that man is the measure of all things. Everything comes from God. Secular thinking separates man’s spirit from God. Islam teaches that it is man’s duty to be humble and to serve God in accordance with his commandments.

On October 30th, 1993, a month after the Poyo meeting, the Groupe Islamique Arme‚ (GIA) officially declared war on foreigners in Algeria. The announcement was made on letterhead with the emblem of the Koran overlaid with crossed swords. “Foreigners have thirty days to leave the country. If they do not, they are responsible for their own death.” The signature was curious – “Abu Mariam,” the father of Mary. The message had been delivered by three French consular officials who had been kidnapped the previous week by a GIA commando group and held in a suburb of Algiers. They were released near the diocesan residence of Bishop Teissier, with orders to publicize the warning.

During the following weeks, the GIA made good its promise. Its escalation to a total war against Le Pouvoir had to include foreigners. To be a foreigner in Algeria meant having a visa, and to have a visa meant the government wanted you for some reason. By killing foreigners, the image of Algeria would be further damaged abroad. Foreign investment and foreign aid would be harder to obtain. The GIA had done its moral duty: They had given fair warning.

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“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, in First Things

“By Mr. Kiser’s own evidence, Muslims in general are not at war with the West in general, or Christianity in particular… What he does quite well is tell the story, at once sad and inspiring, of very good men who took their vocation seriously and died for it.”

Roger Kaplan, The Wall Street Journal

“After two years of research and interviews, Kiser chronicles the vision that inspired the monks and the idealism and commitment that kept them in Algeria despite the increasing violence and approaching danger. Recommended for larger public and academic libraries as well as special collections on Islam, monastic studies, and North Africa.”

From Library Journal (see more Amazon reviews)

“A heart wrenching story of French monks slaughtered by Islamic extremists in Algeria. Kiser builds up the drama leading to the monks death with the skill of a novelist… His painstaking characterization of each monk makes this an incredibly emotional story.”


“Kiser’s book is an attempt to find an answer to what is perhaps the central question of our humanity: How to live with our neighbor? What is the meaning of community? The lives of these monks gives thought provoking answers. Maybe we should all study the Benedictine Rule.”

Anne Aldrich, East Hampton Star

“Mr. Kiser’s work is beautifully researched, and very, very difficult to put down. It serves a dual purpose, each one worthy of a book on its own. The first is to provide a contrast between the terrorist factions who abuse Islam as a tool, and the people of Tibhirine, who practice Islam as brotherhood.”

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Islamic Horizons Magazine

“This book is a timely view of an Islam that is not just about hatred and brutality. The book is spiritually uplifting and extremely moving.”

Harriet Little, Roanoke Times

“An extraordinary and uncannily timed book about real modern martyrs as opposed to the current vulgar variant. A tragic story, thoroughly reported and beautifully rendered with compassion and grit.”

Christopher Buckley, Author, The White House Mess

“Couldn’t be more timely. A fascinating tale of Trappist monks swept up in a story of militant Islam.”

Leslie Cockburn, Producer, 60 Minutes

“Kiser’s evocation of the friendships that grew between the monks and their Muslim neighbors is particularly poignant… He also does a good job of describing the kind of extremists who murdered the monks…”

George Weigle, Catholic Advocate

“This is an important and very timely book….Tragedy can be transformed into hope if we do not turn away from our neighbor, whoever he may be.”

Alliance for International Monasticism Bulletin.

“Well written and extremely well researched… a valuable addition to the literature about modern Algeria.. I plan to recommend it to all officers going on assignment there.”

Peter Bechtold, US Foreign Service Institute

“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

“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… For those interested in Algeria, in Islamism and the disciplined spiritual life, this book is a must.”

Gary Hamburg, Professor of History, Notre Dame 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

“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

“Kiser’s book adds much to what has been written about the monastic martyrs of Algeria… He gives a good account of Algeria’s complex political situation.”

Lawrence Cunningham, Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame(in Commonweal)

“This is the best book about Algeria in the 1990s that I have read.”

Christopher Taylor, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies, Drew University

“Your book would be good for my students because it interweaves religious and monastic history with modern social and political issues. It is also excitingly written and carries the reader along in a suspenseful way–just right for undergraduates trying to understand the difficulties facing Christian- Muslim relations in a radicalized setting.”

Sidney Griffith, Prof of Semitic Languages, Catholic University

“As people seek to make sense of post sept 11, this wonderful book offers much needed perspective..the inward struggle and conviction portrayed ennoble those who read it.”

Bishop William Swing of California, United Religions Initiative

“…A remarkable book about love, respect and forgiveness. It should be read by people of all faiths who seek to live in peace… John Kiser makes the monks and the world they inhabit come alive.”

Elizabeth Swenson, Executive Director, The Friends of St Benedict

“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

“Kiser reconstructs patiently and impartially the sad story of an Algeria in which spirituality and violence, peace and war, great hopes and great contradictions are skillfully interwoven. The book is a testimony to the living pain of a country in search of an identity.”

Marco Impagliazzo, Vice President, Sant’ Egidio, Rome

“This book made me want to live my faith differently.”

Toohey Cameron, student, Wesley Theological Seminary

“Kiser’s book helped me to understand better the whole world of Islam through the eyes of these simple monks.”

Brother Patrick Hart, Abbey of Gethsemani

“A must read shocker for those unaware of recent Algerian history. Beautifully written.”

William W. Warner, Pulitzer Prize winner, Beautiful Swimmers

“An unusual and remarkable book: Part journalism, part psychological analysis, and part Judeo Christian-Islamic ecumenism, the author succeeds on all three fronts. A tour de force.”

Jacques Loquin, French Intelligence Officer (ret.)

“This excellent book manages the remarkable task of juggling three important themes at once: the touching personal stories of a community of Trappist monks in Algeria, an uplifting investigation of what it means to be a true Christian and “live the Gospels”, and finally an unraveling of the confusing and depressing story of Algeria’s civil war. The framework for Kiser’s book is the sad and unheard (in the US) story of the kidnapping and subsequent murder of seven Trappist monks in 1996 by a group of Islamic extremists. Using a myriad of French-language sources, including the diaries and journals of several of the monks and their personal letters, as well as interviews with family members and friends, and a trip to the monastery in Algeria, Kiser has crafted an fine work of history…”

T. Ross, an Amazon reader (see more Amazon reviews)

“I love to read good books. It is rare that an author can integrate the chaos of the Muslim terror in Algeria of the last decade and focus it through the eyes of seven Trappist monks so that we can understand man’s inhumanity to man and be willing to accept it. John Kiser deserves all the accolades on the dust jacket of his work.”

John L. Ryan from Houston, TX (see more Amazon reviews)

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.

A Reader from Bethesda, MD (see more Amazon reviews)