Magazine article The Christian Century

Muslim Neighbors

Magazine article The Christian Century

Muslim Neighbors

Article excerpt

A FEW DAYS after Christian de Cherge's death on May 21 1996, his mother opened a sealed letter and read what he had written three years earlier. Islamic terrorist groups had begun killing foreigners in Algeria, where De Cherge, a Frenchman, was prior of a Trappist monastery. Anticipating his own death, he wrote down his last testament. In our current global climate, his words provide a startling contrast to language that tends to pit the Western world against the Middle East and to equate Muslims with terrorists. De Cherge saw Islam as a gift to the world, and especially to Christians, for whom Islam demonstrated the essence of sacrificial love that is at the center of the Christian gospel. His testament highlights a commitment to risking his life by living in solidarity with the Muslim neighbors he loved.

As a child, de Cherge had lived in Algeria while his father, a ranking military officer, was stationed there. When he saw Muslims at prayer, de Cherge asked his mother about them, and she taught him that they must always be respected; they worship the same God. This was the beginning of a belief in kinship between Muslims and Christians that de Cherge claimed throughout his life. When he became a monk and made his vow of stability at Tibhirine, he recognized the commonalities between his monastic life and the villagers' practice of Islam: a commitment to regular prayer, times of fasting and penance, the high premium placed on hospitality, and an ethos of submission to the will of God. The villagers saw the same "common places" in the monks: in the villagers" eyes, the monks were good Muslims.

De Cherge's deepest encounter with the soul of Islam came in 1959, when, like his father, he was serving in the military and stationed in Algeria. He became friends with Mohamed, a village police officer who worked for the French authorities. Although Mohamed supported decolonization, his job with the French government--and his friendship with de Cherge--put him at risk of violence from the National Liberation Army. One evening when the two were walking, de Cherge was accosted by a violent group. Mohamed intervened and rescued his friend from danger, only to be assassinated himself on the following day.

In this act of giving his life, Mohamed dramatized for de Cherge the implications of his own gospel: that no greater love exists than in giving one's life for another. From that point on, de Cherge's calling was to the embodiment of that love, lived out particularly in relation to the Islam that had dramatized it for him and in connection with Our Lady of Atlas monastery in Algeria, where he made his monastic vows.

In Mohamed and in the life of the villagers at Tibhirine, he saw the soul of Islam and recognized its Christ-likeness. His wish was that at death he would see the children of Islam as God sees them: radiant with a glory that transcends religious and ethnic distinction. Though differences do exist, they cannot estrange or obscure the fundamental communion of God's children.

In October of 1993, the Groupe Islamique Arme (GIA), a militant Muslim group, kidnapped three French consuls in Algeria, then freed them with the message that all foreigners had one month to leave the country. On December 1, 1996, assassinations began, and on December 14, the GIA beheaded 12 Croats at Tamesguida, only a few kilometers away from the Trappist monastery at Tibhirine. …

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