Spirit of slain monks lives on at Algerian abbey

Aymeric Vincenot
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Members of the Chemin Neuf Community prepare for prayers at the Tibhirine monastery, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) away from Algiers

There are no longer Trappist monks at the abbey in Algeria's Tibhirine made infamous by the slaughter of seven men who served there during the country's brutal civil war.

But the memory of the French clergymen, kidnapped and murdered over two decades ago, remains strong as the Catholic Church prepares to officially beatify them on Saturday.

The sun-dappled cloister and bare cells of Our Lady of Atlas are now overseen by a tiny group of believers who hope to keep alive their message of understanding and dialogue.

"This is a place marked by the deaths of the monks," said Brother Bruno, a member of the Chemin Neuf Community, to which the Church handed control in 2016.

The seven monks of Tibhirine were abducted from the monastery by gunmen on the night of March 26, 1996 and only their severed heads were found two months later.

Their deaths were announced by the insurgent Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, which battled the government during the 1992-2002 civil war that left up to 200,000 people dead.

But doubts have lingered ever since over the official version of events that blames Islamist fighters.

"We do not know exactly when they were killed, or where, or by whom," said 50-year-old Brother Bruno.

Seven white marble stones bearing only the first names of the dead mark where their skulls lie buried in the shade of some trees -- Christian, Luc, Christophe, Paul, Celestin, Michel and Bruno.

In January 2018 the Vatican declared that the monks were martyrs for their faith, along with 12 other clergy slain during the conflict, including the bishop of Oran, Pierre Claverie, killed in a bombing in 1996.

They had been murdered "in odium fidei", or out of hatred for the faith, it said, opening the way for their beatification -- the first step on the path to Roman Catholic sainthood.

- 'Very beautiful message' -

Trappist monks sought to return to the abbey in the aftermath of the killings from 1998 to 2001.

But with the civil war still going on they were forced by the authorities to spend their nights in the capital Algiers, some 80 kilometres (50 miles) away, and only travel under military escort.

Eventually they gave up and the site was looked after by a solitary priest until the arrival of its current guardians.

Now the three men and one woman who make up the tiny religious community look after the buildings, some dating back centuries, and the surrounding 1,600 fruit trees.

"I felt small when I arrived here," said Eugene Lehembre, 67, who heads the group.

"Something major had happened here."

Despite the brutality that put an end to the lives of the seven monks, Lehembre said their legacy remains strong.

They had the opportunity to leave the monastery and the fighting in Algeria, but chose to remain.

"I have the impression that something continues here," the priest said.

"A very beautiful message that was left to us by the monks -- a message of solidarity between Algerians and the French, between Christians and Muslims."

The monks established a group called Ribat al Salam (The Link of Peace) that brought together Christians and Muslims.

Samir, 44, was born in Tibhirine and works as an agricultural labourer at the monastery.

He remembered how the monks would help tend to locals when they fell ill.

"People used to come from all over the region to get treated," he said.

Now, roughly 200 people, mostly Algerian Muslims come each weekend to see a place made famous by its grim history and the award-winning 2010 French film "Des Hommes et des Dieux" ("Of Gods and Men") about the monks.

"Bridges are necessary, talking to each other is necessary, living together is necessary, recognising and accepting each others difference is necessary," said Lehembre.

"That is how we can live together in peace."