Saturday, May 23, 2015

May 23 - Christian de Cherge and Companions, Martyrs, Monks, Hospitable

There had been Christians in Algeria before the monastery in Atlas had been built and dedicated to prayer and service. But, this monastery represented an entirely new possibility--a new opportunity for the spread of God's Kingdom. The Cistercian monks who populated its halls were French by birth but Christian monks by intention and devotion regardless of what national or social pressures they were forced to face. This monastery was to be--and truly did become--the contemplative and prayer-filled center of Christian life in Muslim dominated Algeria. There were no local people joining in with the monastery--Christianity came at a very high price to the locals--but there were always monks willing to move to Atlas regardless of the potential costs involved. Their lives were disciplined lives of prayer, contemplation, and service. This consistency and regularity gave a strong foundation and foothold to the rapidly growing Algerian Christian community that was in need of leadership and education. In the monastery, they could find both leaders and teachers.

By day, the monks did what they were called to do. Each of them was acquainted with hard work and knew how to farm and coax the warm earth to give its life to the people who needed its sustenance. They grew their own food and planted their own gardens but they did far more than this, as well. They were eager and willing to teach their agricultural techniques--techniques that worked very well but may have been unpracticed by the local farmers in Algeria at the time--to any who was interested regardless of religious conviction or persuasion. They didn't practice hospitality and give the gifts of their knowledge because they hoped to convert the Muslims but because the Muslims were their neighbors and worthy of their love and care. Furthermore, the monastery's doors were open to those seeking refuge or medical care. Regardless of the injury or the need, the monks were willing to care for the one whom God had delivered into their benevolence. Perhaps most shocking was the time when they offered their sanctuary--the space in which they worshiped together--to some local Muslims whose mosque had been destroyed. These Muslims met in the Christian space and worshiped as they desired because of the hospitality of the Christians with whom they disagreed theologically.

Christian and the monks got along well with the Muslims near Atlas and with the majority of those they met. But there were some who were repelled by the hospitality that Christian and his companions offered and desired for the monks to be removed from Algeria. If they would not go willingly or convert to Islam, then they would have to be killed. Twenty Muslim men stormed the monastery on March 26th, 1996, and took the first seven monks they found because they had been told to go and get "those seven monks." Christian was among the seven that were taken.They were taken away from their home and held captive for some time. While captive, they were accused of various crimes and punished for being Christian. Christian had written a letter in 1995 that began "If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready 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 this country." He went to ask the reader to "associate such a death with the many other deaths that were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity. My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value." The seven were killed on May 21st, 1996, and their deaths were announced on May 23rd, 1996.

In the final paragraphs of his letter, Christian addressed his would-be-murderer and wrote: "And you also, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing.Yes, for you also I wish this 'thank you'—and this 'adieu'—to commend you to the God whose face I see in yours. And may we find each other, happy "good thieves," in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen."

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