A Catholic priest and martyr inspired by Muslim friends
Christian de Chergé was a Catholic priest who was the prior for a Trappist monastery in Algeria. As a young man in 1958 he served in the French army fighting Algerians in the War of Independence, a war noted for its brutality. During an ambush, his life was saved by Mohamad, a Muslim friend and police officer who shielded him with his own body. They both survived only to have Mohamad assassinated the next day. This act of self-sacrifice prompted by the Muslim policeman’s faith led to de Chergé’s conversion from his secular life to Christianity. Many French missionaries and religious fled Algeria following independence in 1962. The Trappists remained to offer a contemplative Christian presence for the healing of the country.
Following his studies in Rome to become a priest, de Chergé was assigned to the Our Lady of Atlas Monastery in Algeria. In addition to their monastic disciplines of prayer and work, the monks offered a place for Christians and Muslims to pray together. A building inside the monastery was offered for use as a mosque allowing chapel bells and the Muslim call to prayer to be mixed. He believed that we see the face of God in the face of the other person, and that specifically he had seen the face of Christ in his Muslim friends and neighbors.
In 1993 Algeria experienced a growing rebellion. Though most of the neighbors of the monastery viewed the Trappist monks as trusted men of God, some extremists considered them
foreign infidels. The rebels gave an ultimatum to all foreigners to leave the country, but the Trappists stayed, refusing military protection. Father de Chargé wrote,
For us it is a journey of faith into the future and of sharing the present with our neighbors, who have always been very closely bound to us. He sent a letter home to be opened in the event of his death.
In 1996 rebels invaded the monastery and seized Father de Chargé and six monks. Weeks later they were beheaded. De Chargé’s family then opened and publicized his letter in which he prayed for forgiveness for his murderers with the hope that their action would not contribute to negative stereotypes about Islam or Algeria. He closed with a hope for heavenly reconciliation with the forgiven murderers:
May we be granted to meet each other again, happy
good thieves, in paradise, should it please God, the Father of both of us. Amen! In sh’Allah!
In popular culture
The acclaimed film Of Gods and Men tells this story. This movie and the book The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria are available on Amazon.