Clerics keep watch for the hour of death

INSIDE ALGERIA

Algiers - There were 36 monks and nuns at the Mass, most of them French, grey- or white-haired, listening beneath the stained-glass windows to their priest's reading from St Matthew, Chapter 25, verse 13, his words echoing through the little chapel in the Algiers suburb of Hydra.

"Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of Man cometh." No one moved on the hard wooden seats. Beside the altar, the bespectacled figure of Monseigneur Henri Teissier, Archbishop of Algiers, sat like a statue in his white and purple robes. In every sense of the word, the silence was deadly.

They had come here, these brave 36, to remember one of France's first religious martyrs in Algeria, Vicomte Charles de Foucauld, the French soldier-turned-priest assassinated by an Islamist at Tamranrasset in 1916. His murder set an awful precedent for the monks and nuns who still refuse to leave the land they call home. Of the 118 foreigners murdered here, 19 were priests or sisters of the Christian church. The French government long ago told the 8,000 remaining French citizens in Algeria to leave, but you have to admire the courage of the 300 or so clerics - from Latin America, Asia and the Middle East as well as France - who refused.

"I'm not afraid for me, but for our community," the Archbishop says later - a 67-year-old French professor of Arabic who took Algerian nationality after independence.

"You can imagine what I feel every time I hear the phone ring late at night or when I've left my number while visiting a friend's house." On 21 May, the phone rang to tell him that all seven monks kidnapped from the monastery of Tibhirine, high in the mountains outside Algiers, had been found decapitated. He speaks softly when he describes what was found afterwards on the road between Algiers and Medea.

"It is true that we found only their heads," he says. "Three of their heads were hanging from a tree near a petrol station. The other four heads were lying on the grass beneath. But it is marvellous that the families of those monks maintained their friendship for us and for all Algerians. They had visited the monastery. They had been able to accept the loss of their sons. They knew it was not all Algerians who did this thing."

A unit of the Islamic Armed Group, led by a man named Sayah Attia, had cut their throats; one of the slain priests had recognised him - when he opened the door of the monastery to the kidnappers two months earlier - from a newspaper photograph that identified Attia as the murderer of 12 Croats whose throats were slashed near the monastery in December 1995.

Could the Archbishop understand what happened in the mind of the priests' killers at the moment they took up their knives? "They will kill a boy of two or an old man of 85. I think they are out of their consciences. They work under their understanding of Islamic law - `we have to kill the enemies of the Lord' - and it is finished ... we ourselves are not in the same situation as we were before this crisis. When you begin celebrating the Eucharist, you cannot help remembering that Jesus was murdered by human violence - and in the name of religion. Now we have to understand the risk in this society, that we are walking in the footsteps of Jesus. We cannot look at the cross of Jesus as we have done before. Before, it was an abstract thing. Now it is a daily reality."

The Archbishop insists that his church, having long abandoned the idea of conversion, is now a church for Muslims. "We have become more and more the church of the Muslim people. The Algerians are Muslims but we are their church. We pray for them to try to help them."

The seven monks at Tibhirine opened their doors to all who needed help or medical aid, be they the poor of the mountains, even the GIA itself. "Islamists" are blamed for the deaths of most of the priests and nuns but no one is certain who killed the Bishop of Oran, Mgr Pierre Claverie, on 1 August this year, the day he met the French Foreign Minister, Herve de Charrette.

Mgr Teissier, who was Bishop of Oran for nine years, believes Mgr Claverie was targeted much earlier. "The bomb went off in the street. He was crushed by the door of the chapel and his brains were found on the chapel floor. It was absurd, idiotic, unconscionable." Just for a moment, there is a hint of anger in the Archbishop's voice. He was in France the night Mgr Claverie was killed, with the family of one of the dead monks of Tibhirine, knowing neither the day nor the hour.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick