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...a tragic story, thoroughly reported and beautifully rendered with compassion and grit.
...The Monks of Tibhirine is not only a penetrating account of recent historical events, but of ideas and ideologies driving them.
For those interested in Algeria, in Islamism and the disciplined spiritual life, this book is a must.
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.
I could not put this excellent book down....The book touched me deeply.
This book made me want to live my faith differently.
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...
The Monks of Tibhirine is a work of great sensitivity...It transforms tragedy into hope for the future of Christian-Muslim relations... most inspiring!
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 these lines.
..At last we have a complete understanding of this heartrending tragedy. Highly recommended.
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.
...His book paints a surprising picture of the bonds of faith between Christians and Muslims, and provides a ray of hope for the future.
Pulitzer Prize winner William W. Warner calls John Kiser's newest book, The Monks of Tibhirine, "...a must read shocker for those unaware of recent Algerian history. ...beautifully written."
This book is not the first written about the monks of Tibhirine... but it could well be the best among all those written in any language so far.
"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 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.
John Kiser has done a wonderful job in writing about this gem of a story. His telling of it is very convincing... the lives of Christian de Cherge and his brothers were a gift of hope.
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.
"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... 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
(Excerpts displayed in red speak to the politics of Terrorism)
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...
The monks had been advised not to hire Mohammed as le gardien. The responsibility of watchman, they were told, would put him in the awkward position of having to say "no" to friends. He might also be criticized by other Muslims for protecting foreigners. The monks did not regret having ignored the advice. For an Arab, the monks found Mohammed unusually candid. He knew how to say what was on his mind, but always with courtesy and sensitivity. To these good qualities were added a strong sense of responsibility and a diplomatic way of getting others to do things right.
Surveying the monastery and its neighbors from the summit, a few hundred yards higher, was another guardian, on top of Abd el-Kader Rock. She was the one to whom the monks sang Salve Regina each night at the end of Compline before going to bed. To the local Muslims, she was Lalla Mariam, the Virgin mother of Jesus who, by a miraculous birth, gave the world a holy apostle, free of sin.
Over the years, Muslim women from the surrounding villages had worn a path to her feet through the dense cork-oak forest to seek her aid and blessing for sick children or a safe pregnancy. Women having difficulty getting pregnant might well have thought that this particular Lalla Mariam had special powers. She was one of the few statues in existence that depicted her in a family way. Rarer still, both her arms were broken off at the elbow and her stomach had been gouged with a chisel.
When the attack first occurred, the monks felt as though their own mother had been violated...
"Socialism, democracy, dictatorship," Ali would say later to his youthful audiences were "dung droppings in the garbage of the human spirit." "For Muslims", he wrote in the Islamist newspaper El Mounquid (The Holy Warrior) a year after his release from prison, "liberty is constrained by the law of God, not by rights of others... rights change and liberty is an illusion that can be trampled by the state. True liberty comes from submission to God."
An Algerian Robespierre, Ali Benhadj was the virtuous one-a model of austerity, humility and incorruptibility to his admirers. He lived simply. Imam Ali didn't own a TV. He preferred a moped to a car. "You would never see him walking down the street with a pizza in his mouth," a youthful admirer proudly noted. Ali Ben Mohammed Benhadj Habib Ben Salah lived with his mother- in- law, wife and four children in a two- room apartment in the poor Kouba neighborhood of Algiers. Imam Ali was compassionate. He had time to sit on doorsteps and talk with the poor. Even if he could do nothing for them, he made them feel better.
In February of 1989, four months after the government's meeting with the imams, a new constitution was adopted that swept away the political monopoly held by the FLN since 1962. It introduced rights unknown for twenty seven years. Freedom of expression and assembly, freedom of conscience, the right to form independent unions and to strike were explicitly granted for the first time since independence. An Algerian perestroika was born.
But was this real change, or just an old whore in a new dress? Many wondered. Le pouvoir was clever, especially when it came to keeping power over the flow of oil money. Weren't the diverse political currents inside the FLN simply being exteriorized? And wouldn't a democratic looking government that had to beat down, if necessary with undemocratic means, a theocratic, backward looking Islamist movement that frightened westerners with its anti modern ways and rhetoric be more easily tolerated than continued single party dictatorship?
Hatred and violence in the psalms was becoming a sensitive subject at the weekly meetings of the liturgy committee. They knew that references to Israel and the "enemies of the Lord " found in the psalms were being omitted from the liturgy by certain of the priests in Algiers anxious not to offend Muslims. "They speak against you wickedly; Your enemies take your name in vain... Do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred, I count them my enemies..." Psalm 139 could give the wrong idea. Would Muslims think the enemies of the Lord meant them?
Christian understood perfectly well the importance of the violence in the psalms. He called them a cry that says, "God be just, so I don't take justice into my own hands. I know I can't be just when I am angry." The psalms reminded him of the violence in himself, something he believed was at the core of every person. Nevertheless, Christian thought it was insensitive to be singing psalms of violence when violence was increasing all around them.
The brothers were in agreement. Christian was being too sensitive. The liturgy was built around the psalms. They were an ancient patrimony handed down from the desert fathers who sang the very same psalms centuries ago.... If certain verses offended, they could be explained. It is clearly written in the Koran that God gave the psalms to David. A greater problem for the brothers was the way they sang to the Lord...
...(After the assassination of President Boudiaf in June 1992 violence erupts anew six months after cancelation of the election results which would have produced a FIS victory...)
The eradicateurs seemed to have broken the Islamist fever by mid-summer of 1992. In July Madani and Benhadj were sentenced to 12 years imprisonment by a military court in Blida. FIS elected officials in the municipalities had been removed from office and replaced by new appointed representatives. The call by FIS leaders for mass uprising by the 3,000,000 cheated voters did not occur. They did not revolt after the election was interrupted, or even after the FIS was declared illegal. The security forces had intimidated FIS sympathizers and removed politically inflammatory imams from the mosques. The youth in certain well known FIS neighborhoods of Algiers were routinely rounded up for interrogations. Much of the FIS intelligensia were in detention camps or had already left the county. Then, like the raindrops that at first fall gradually and then faster until becoming a downpour, the violence mutated into new forms by new actors on whom no police dossiers existed.
On the morning of August 26, a devastating explosion signaled something new. A bomb placed under a seat in the waiting area near the Air France check- in counter at Houari Boumedienne Airport killed nine people and wounded one hundred and twenty. Many of the victims were women and children, though, curiously, no security personnel were injured. Body parts were carried out in plastic garbage bags in a nightmare of carnage that spewed blood and flesh over walls and ceilings. The random killing of innocent civilians, especially of women and children outraged the public. Total war had been declared, though it was not clear by whom. The prime minister alluded to a foreign hand in the matter when he spoke with the press.
A month later, the supposed authors of the attack were caught. Four men were found guilty, even though they insisted in the courtroom that they had confessed only after being tortured. The accused were ex- FIS hard-liners connected to the Movement Islamique Arme(MIA) of Adelkader Chebouti, former captain in the Securite Militaire, the intelligence branch of the Algerian army. He had also joined the maquis with Emir Mustafa Bouyali in the mid 1980s and had been captured and sentenced to death along with six others. He was the only one to be reprieved.
Chebouti had been one of the purs et durs. They were the outspoken hard-line purist voices in the internal FIS debates, opposing participation in the national elections of December 1991. He protested then that the process was a masquerade. Participating served only to give legitimacy to the apostate neocolonialists who were in cahoots with France. Chebouti's analysis made him a hero to many Islamists when his predictions proved to be accurate. He became the wise combatant. He had foreseen that the elections were not a game that the FIS would be allowed to win.
After the cancellation of the second round of elections, the arguments by FIS leaders against armed revolt were no longer tenable. The peaceful path to theocracy had been blocked. Initially, his Armed Islamic Mouvement or MIA was the only armed group in the field ready to fight. His organization was a reincarnation of the Boulyalist djihad that he had joined in 1982.
Many of the MIA's estimated 2000 moudjhideen were veterans of the first djihad led by emir Mustapha Bouyali in the mid 1980s. Most of his followers were also in police files--which made hiding in the cities difficult. Chebouti had anticipated the failure of the political strategy of the FIS. He planned their military actions from the maquis and had placed caches of food and arms in the mountains around Blida and in the Medea. Young FIS sympathizers living in the Islamist fiefdoms of southeast Algiers flocked to Chebouti.
General Chebouti was not only wise and farsighted, he was also a seasoned professional who wanted only qualified cadres. Fearing penetration by agents of the Securite Militaire, Chebouti's rigorous recruitment criteria prevented him from using the thousands who were ready to fight. His short lived leadership of the holy war against Taghout, the despotic evil one, gave way to newer, more democratic and less discriminating opposition movements.
The Groupe Islamique Arme was one. Known as the GIA, its new emirs accepted all who were willing to fight. They looked only for zeal and courage. At first, the test of committment was killing a policeman, just as the FLN had tested its recruits when fighting the French. Later, it was to kill a member of the family.
The teaming population of young men in the Islamist sections of Algiers became a high stakes target for both the army and the Islamist opposition. They were forced to choose.The army could offer them a job, two year contracts even if the pay was a pittance, and some protection. Later, the army would also promise the possibility to obtain visas when their service was completed. Yet, if a man joined the army, he risked being killed by the GIA when he returned home on leave. If he did not join the army, he risked being suspected by the police of sympathy for the terrorists. In 1992, kids in the crowded neighborhoods of El Harrach, Hussein Dey, Baraki, Kouba, Belcourt, Bab el Oued, Eucalyptus, saw greater safety in siding with the emirs. These people, they thought, knew what they were fighting for. On the streets, the moudjhideen had a reputation for courage and inspiring fear in the police. In the years ahead, the GIA would dominate the attention of the international community by the savagery and boldness of its attacks.
There was no shortage of motives for the young to fight. Some wanted to avenge in the riots of 88. Others had been brutalized by the police or had had friends or relatives who suffered at the hands of the security forces. There were mundane and practical reasons: to make money, enjoy the booty of war, or to escape the suffocating curfew that kept them inside fetid apartment buildings whose corridors were filled with the stink of urine and feces. Into the ranks of the new moudjahideen came a full gamut of recruits. There were unemployed university students, thieves and drug addicts, Afghan veterans from the fight against communism, ex FIS members and office holders who had been stripped of their elected position, and converts to a cause that offered a sense of higher purpose---to fight for God by opposing tyranny and injustice.
French researchers in the early 1990s interviewed two dozen families in the pro FIS neighborhoods of Algiers to understand better the sociology of the violence. They found a youth that felt rudderless and isolated, whose parents had moved from the countryside where the large extended family had once provided structure, security and self sufficiency. In the city, the acid of unemployment had been eroding traditional patriarchial authority. The collective rhythms and values of family life marked by religious celebrations counted for less; contact with other family members became sporadic; fathers were often absent. Urban living had brought on the feeling of breakdown in collective values, replaced by a sense of malignant individualism. The young are without pity. They are only out for themselves, a 23 year old shopkeeper explained. Multiparty politics was seen as contributing to the breakdown. We are all Algerians. Why do we need to have parties that divide us. Democracy is not an Algerian intiative anyway. These things were decided in France , a 30 year old trabendist told his French interlocutor.
Their heroes were the ascetic leader, untempted by power and the things of this world. These were men like Ali Benhadj and other imams they considered disinterested in power. The great djihad is for one's own soul. For many, the terrorist had become the defender of the community against injustice. The true elite were beyond the things of this world. Suffering ennobled. A 28 year old produce vendor remarked, Imprisonment, fear, hunger, deprivation, condemnation --these are the experiences that lead to paradise.
The researchers also found a deep gulf separating the old moudjahideen who had fought the French, and the new moudjahideen who claimed to be continuing the djihad of 1954. In April, 1993, the assassination of a woman in the Eucalyptus neighborhood scandalized the old men, as the veterans of the War of Liberation were snearingly called by young Islamists. Karima, as she was known in the press, worked for the social and sports directorate of the Police de la Surete Nationale. In the local mosque, it was said she was an informer for the Securite Militaire and had compromised some young moudjahideen. To the older generation, killing a defenseless woman was simply inexcusable . Her family depended on her salary. Killing mothers was ethically beyond the pale.
The young found the old men laughably sentimental in their views about women. All threats had to be eliminated. Did they think women were incapable of killing? The FLN had used women effectively in their terror campaign during the battle of Algiers. This was total war, to be fought without mercy. Their fathers conveniently forgot about the violence the government committed against the young Islamists and their suspected sympathizers. Walking on the street with a friend who was wearing a beard could get a young man into jail for interrogation. But for the old men, the young were treading a path that would plunge the country into a war worse than the one with France. They knew. They knew from experience the crimes war can mask, especially in a society mined with social and economic inequality. Whereas the old men spoke of young kids who killed for money, jealousy or blood lust, their children saw sincere, committed fighters for justice.
Chapter 14: Decent into Hell (The first instance of Christian clerics among the unharmed civilians killed by the terrorists; Many imams who preached against violence were also assassinated)
A brigade of the Armed Islamic Group killed two crusaders who have been spreading evil in Algeria for many years, read the communique published on May 13, 1994 in the London based El Ansar that was the GIA mouthpiece. Rahab Kebir, the FIS- in- exile spokesman in Germany issued a statement saying, The murder of religious men and women is contrary to Islamic law. Many dismissed this disavowal by the FIS as political smoke. A popular imam in the Casbah condemned the assassination and a few days later was himself killed.
The assassination of Father Henri Verges and Sister Paul-Helene St. Raymond was a shock to Algerians of virtually all stripes. The attack was the first on a representative of the church since 1976 when Duval's vicar was stabbed in the thigh. Henri Verges murder struck Christian especially hard. Henri had been a regular member of the ribat and a close friend. The two men even looked alike. Each had high foreheads, elongated, pointing- finger noses and lean, bespectacled faces. A Marionst priest, Verges had been active in the ribat from the earliest days. Understanding Islamic doctrine was difficult for him, but he persisted. He had told Christian that he felt frustrated and stymied by the Islamic intellectuals, but thought the little people were wonderful. Like Mary, I don't understand, but I watch and wait, he had told him. Henri's and Paul- Helene's execution confirmed the sense of betrayal and outrage Christian had felt in January 1994 when he had read the article that appeared in la Vie, a catholic magazine published in France.
He had played the gracious host to its author, Annie Laurent, a French political scientist cum journalist who had visited Tibhirine in late 1993 as part of a larger story she was doing on the church in Algeria. Her article, Christians on Borrowed Time, published in January of 1994 played to the theme of Muslim persecution of a Christian church deprived of its real mission of winning souls. Its 170 clergymen and 368 members of religious orders had been reduced, she implied, to a pitiable state of silence, keeping a low profile, merely being an example, by doing good works among the people.
To Christian, the article gave the impression of an aggrieved church denied the right to proselytize. This could only feed the prejudices of those Algerians who wanted to see the church as camouflaged crusaders, lying low, talking dialogue and mutual respect now that it was weak. The article made no mention of the tremendous strength of the faith among those who stayed, unsupported by the props of power, status or wealth, or of the challenge of Islam to make them become better Christians, and to question their certitudes. The Algerian Church was poor and powerless, so its faith had to be strong. It was persecuted by a few, not as a church, but as part of a bad memory. If some Christians were attacked, so were even more imams. By May of 1994 over fifty imams had been murdered for condemning the killing of civilians.
The monastery maintained a certain detente with both sides of the violence. Luc sometimes treated the wounds of the brothers of the plain in the morning, and in the evening, the brothers of the mountains might appear and were simply called montagnards. The local GIA knew everything. They knew they were called brothers by the monks, and that the monks were respected and liked by their neighbors. Christian described the community as living in a fishbowl. They were under constant observation and could be taken at any time. The local emir knew they weren't going anywhere. But just how accomodating should the monks be to maintain the spirit of fraternity towards all sides? That divisive question broke out again after dinner in early October.
Three men knocked on the door of the new building where Robert was living since his hermitage had been destroyed. They knew Robert and had visited him in the mountains many times. Once they asked him to go into business with them selling his well known honey. This time, they wanted to use the monastery's telephone. Robert explained that they could not go inside with their weapons and went to get Christian who returned with a portable phone. Christian told them the phones were tapped, but they didn't care. Robert pulled out a cigarette while they tried to get a line through to an international number.
"That's forbidden" one of the montagnards admonished him.
"What's forbidden is killing people, not smoking", Robert answered after a pause.
Paul arrived on the scene. "That won't do" , he almost shouted as he ran up to the men. Paul was belligerent. He didn't like the GIA. They reminded him too much of the fells he had fought as a paratrooper during the war. A gun was pointed at his stomach when Christophe intervened. The brothers, he told Paul, had no intention to harm the monastery. Unlike Christian, Paul had not mastered the art of being firm without being combative.
Christian called a meeting after the episode to discuss what to do if they came again to use the phone. The community consensus was to simply discontinue the use of the phones altogether. The GIA would find out from their sympathizers in the police department that the phones were no longer in use. Christian later learned that the call had been placed to Henninge, Sweden, which unbeknown to him was the mailing address for the GIA publication El Ansar, that was printed in Poland and distributed in London.
"The concept of total war is not Islam. Islam says you can kill only those who threaten you. You never kill women, children or religious people unless they are themselves in combat." Ibrahim Younessi always wears a tie and a jacket. He has a square jawed, clean cut look reminiscent of a young 1950s Ivy League professor, or a Mormon. He is a member of the FIS in exile in Paris, an active contributor to French scholarly magazines and former aide de camp of sheik Sahraoui, one of the original FIS founders. Islam teaches, Younessi insisted with professorial certainty at the cafe La Coupole where we met, that war is waged against men, not peoples and cultures. Members of the FIS even studied the concept of the just war in St Augustine. A Muslim has an obligation to save the helpless, aid the poor and protect the innocent. What Mohammed did for Christian during the war is not all that unusual. The Koran says whoever kills one person unjustly, kills all of humanity and whoever saves an innocent life, saves all of humanity.
Others in the FIS thought as Younessi did. The killing done in the name of Islam was discrediting Islam, Islamists, and the FIS. The violence was not serving any identifiable political goal---the GIA slogan, no peace, no truce, no compromise, was a formula for an endless treadmill of killing. FIS sympathizers in the army and population were embarrassed. So too were some within the GIA itself who thought their leaders were not fighting in an Islamic way.
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