Remembering the monks of Tibhirine

by John L. Allen Jr.

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In May 1996, seven Cistercian monks from the Monastery of Tibhirine in Algeria were found dead, after having been kidnapped two months earlier. They were caught up in a bloody conflict between the Algerian government and the Armed Islamic Group, an extremist movement reflecting widespread discontent with a regime regarded as corrupt and illegitmate.

The Cistercians saw the storm clouds gathering but opted to remain and face death, in solidarity with the people they had served and loved for so long.

A 2010 French film, Des hommes et des dieux, “Of Men and Gods,” tells the story of the Tibhirine monks. It won the Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival (from a jury led by American director Tim Burton) and has become a huge critical and commercial success in France. It’s also been named by France as its candidate in the “Best Foreign Language Film” category in the Academy Awards.

The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, today carried a front-page essay on the film by staff writer Lucetta Scaraffia. The article carries special relevance, given that the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, where relations between Christians and Muslims have been an overriding concern, is wrapping up this week.

The following is an NCR translation of Scaraffia’s piece.

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The monks of Tibhirine and the poll of The Economist

By Lucetta Scaraffia

The most recent issue of The Economist presents the results of a readers’ poll about religion. Readers were asked if they regard religion as a force for good, or as a threat to it. The reasons on either side in the authoritative British review came from two journalists, but Mark Oppenheimer, who argued for religion, wasn’t very convincing. He offered three arguments, of which one was definitely original but difficult to sustain: “Religion is entertaining.” It’s thus not surprising if the sharp majority of readers – precisely 75 percent – voted against religion.

I’m sure that if these same readers had been shown the film by Xavier Beauvois, called in Italian “Men of God” – which is more beautiful than its original title in French, “Of Men and Gods” — they would have expressed a different opinion.

This film – which in France has had great success, reaching two and a half million viewers – tells the story of the life and death of the Cistercian monks of Tibhirine, on the mountains of the Maghreb, in a simple and real way, without hagiographic touches.

It’s a simple life, dedicated to manual labor to ensure their survival, to study, and naturally, with a large part of the day reserved for prayer. The monks do not have a mission to evangelize, only that of offering a witness of love and prayer. Their daily life is therefore simple: They only want to be “a sign in the mountain” and not an opposition, a sign of brotherhood with a people that’s overwhelmingly Muslim.

They’re caught up, however, with the outbreak of hostility between a government, which is defined as corrupt, and a fundamentalist rebellion. The monks know where things are headed, and humanly they’re afraid. Some – the youngest – think about leaving, as the government wants them to do. But the superior asks them to take some time to reflect, and this period helps all of them to reach the same decision: to stay and face martyrdom.

The path that leads them to this choice is well narrated, similar yet different for everyone, and admirably represented in a “last supper” that brings them altogether, and during which – sipping a glass of wine that already represents their sacrifice – each face reflects the fear for what awaits them, and the serenity of the choice they’ve made.

The most beautiful aspect of the film is that it shows the monks as ordinary people: with the weaknesses and the fear of ordinary people, human beings like us, fragile, who in the course of ever darker days draw courage from prayer. In fact, it’s in the chanting of the psalms and in prayer that they the find the response they were seeking: we cannot leave the people of the village with whom we’ve lived up to now. Not in their moment of need.

Their message is clear: for love of the Muslims of the Maghreb, they accept martyrdom, demonstrating that the conflict between religions, like every conflict, can be annulled with an act of love.

In this film, the bad face of religion – that is, the fundamentalist distortion that’s repugnant to the Muslim believers themselves – and the good meet one another, in a tale that succeeds in showing us how much light can radiate through a choice of total love. Even the readers of The Economist would have considerable difficulty ignoring it.

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