Clerics keep watch for the hour of death


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
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Robbie Savage will not face a driving ban
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries were putting themselves at risk of tinnitus and, in extreme cases, irreversible hearing loss
health Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries are at risk of tinnitus
It was only when he left his post Tony Blair's director of communications that Alastair Campbell has published books
people The most notorious spin doctor in UK politics has reinvented himself
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in ‘I Am Michael’
filmJustin Kelly's latest film tells the story of a man who 'healed' his homosexuality and turned to God
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower