ROME – It’s official: A bishop, seven Trappist monks and 11 other religious men and women killed by extremists in Algeria between 1994 and 1996 have been recognized as martyrs by Pope Francis on Saturday.
The decree signed by the pontiff was released on Saturday morning Rome time, confirming that the Servant of God, Pierre Lucien Claverie, bishop of Oran, together with 18 companions have been acknowledged as dying in odium fidei, meaning in “hatred of the faith.”
The monks of Tibhirine knew that they were in danger and would likely be killed if they remained in Algeria, at the time divided by a war between extremist rebels and the Algerian government forces. Their story was depicted in a 2010 French drama “Of Gods and Men,” recipient of the Grand Prix, the second most prestigious award of the Cannes Film Festival.
The conflict began in 1992 when the Algerian army canceled the general election, as it seemed the Islamic Salvation Front, a fundamentalist political movement, was about to win. It was the eventual triumph by the Salvation Front in Algeria that gave rise to a rueful saying about efforts to transition to democracy in many Islamic societies: “One man, one vote, one time.”
An estimated 44,000 people, most of them civilians, were killed amid the fighting.
French Father Christian de Cherge, the slain prior of the monastery, had written in a letter nearly three years before his death that he and the other monks would willingly offer themselves as a sacrifice for the people of Algeria.
The prior wrote, “When the time comes, I would like to be able to have that stroke of lucidity which would permit me to ask forgiveness of God and of my brothers in humanity, forgiving wholeheartedly, at the same time, whoever my killer might be.”
“May we meet each other again, happy thieves, in paradise, should it please God,” he added.
Seven of the Trappist monks were kidnapped from their Atlas convent soon after midnight on the night of March 27, 1996, after some 20 armed men stormed the place. Two monks, who were hidden in separate rooms, were left behind. The phone lines had been cut off, so they couldn’t call the police, and a curfew meant they couldn’t drive to a police station either.
The seven monks- all of them French- were beheaded two months later. Their deaths were announced on May 23 in a statement from the Armed Islamic Group. Their heads were recovered on May 30, and buried in the Tibhirine convent. Their bodies were never found, and the mystery of their death was never clarified either.
Claverie, the bishop, was killed with his driver by a remote-controlled bomb left by the bishop’s residence. He was praised for his personal courage and long-standing efforts to promote dialogue between Muslims and Christians in the North African country.
In early January, the postulator of their cause, French Trappist monk Thomas Georgeon, gave an interview to the online monthly Mondo e Missionne, of the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions.
“Each one of them has been a genuine witness of the love of Christ, of dialogue, of openness to others, of friendship and loyalty to the Algerian people,” he said.
The deaths of the 19 religious amounted to “a martyrdom in the midst of a sea of violence that devastated Algeria,” Georgeon said.
“To pay homage to these 19 Christian martyrs means also paying homage to the memory of all those who gave their life in Algeria those dark years” as they were killed “for their country and for their faith,” the priest said.
In that interview, he revealed that the Algerian church hopes the beatification ceremony- the step previous to sainthood- can be celebrated in Oran.
Saturday’s decree is a confirmation of what Pope John Paul II proclaimed soon after Claverie’s murder.
“His martyrdom must become the seed of love and the reason of hope,” he said during a Sunday Angelus address. “In the face of violence that respects no one and nothing, Algeria more than ever needs peacemakers and brotherhood.”
“May God move the Christians and Muslims there to gather together and imitate the witness of Bishop Claverie.”
In a telegram he had sent two days earlier, on Aug. 2, 1996, to the bishops of Algeria, he wrote: “For the Church in Algeria, once more cruelly attacked, a new page is added to the martyrology.”
“I implore the Lord to make this the occasion of a new impetus for her and for the Algerian people whose hopes and sufferings she wishes to share, towards a society where man is no longer mocked, where violence no longer has a foothold and where differences can contribute to the common good,” Saint John Paul II wrote.