Clerics keep watch for the hour of death

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The Independent Online
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.