Book cover
The Monks of Tibhirineby By John W. KiserSt. Martin’s Press. 295p $25.95

The story of seven men who literally lost their heads for Christor more accurately for their fellow humans whom they selflessly loved in Christis one of heroic beauty. And John W. Kiser tells it in full. The Monks of Tibhirine (the author’s third book, after Communist Entrepreneurs and Stefan Zweig: Death of a Modern Man) is an especially valuable book to read in this present moment in history for the profoundly insightful and compassionate way in which the author puts this martyrdom in context.

During the night of March 27-28, 1996, an armed band of Islamic fundamentalists broke through the gates and into the Cistercian Monastery of Our Lady of Atlas near the village of Tibhirine in Algeria, abducted seven monks and subsequently executed them. Father Christian de Chergé, the superior, was a man with an extraordinarily compassionate heart, and he sought to help each of his brother monks cultivate the same. He succeeded. Christian, and even more his Trappist brothers Bruno, Christophe, Luc, Paul, Michael and Celestin, were ordinary men. As they marched steadfastly toward their foreseen fate, they continued to perform their everyday, very ordinary tasks in loving fraternity and service to their Muslim neighbors. It took many meetings for them to arrive at their heroic solidarity and support one another in it. Most of them had been touched at some time in earlier life by the beauty of Algiers and the goodness of the ordinary Algerian.


The seven monks of Our Lady of Atlas came from different backgrounds. And different things brought them to the cloisters of one of the strictest orders in the church, the Cistercian Trappists, then led them further to seek out one of the smallest and poorest monasteries in the order, this little house in Algeria. A love beyond human telling brought them into a communion (if I may use that word) with their fellow humans that in many ways erased the barriers of religion.

Kiser’s book is not heavy; in fact, it is an easy and enjoyable read. Yet anyone looking for a good summation of the history of the Trappists through the centuries and through the vicissitudes of post-Vatican II renewal will not be disappointed. Kiser captures the spirit and the very down-to-earth way this life was lived at Tibhirine, what he calls the dualities of Trappist life: solitude and community, meditation and action, love and discipline, a community-disciplined and self-disciplined life. At the same time, he also presents Islam in its richness and depth and the historical vicissitudes it has experienced in Algiers through the centuries and in the evolution of the new Muslim nation.

I have read a number of books on Islam during recent months, profoundly aware of my ignorance in regard to this great world religion. But no book I read gave me as much of a feeling for these brothers and sisters as has Kiser’s account of the monks of Tibhirine. For this alone, it is a book we can very profitably read under the present circumstances.

Christian, the unifier, is an especially attractive figure who holds center stage in the narrative: [H]e always chose to see the good in things, to look beyond the irritants and the bad. He did not want to dignify evil by letting it preoccupy him. Nor would he make broad judgments about people or governments. He would merely describe a specific act as good or bad, helpful or unhelpful, according to the situation. He believed people could always change, especially if one addressed their higher nature. Kiser weaves into his narrative rich, warm portraits of all the other Cistercian martyrs, as well as of a number of the Muslims who touched their lives.

Throughout the book are wonderful words of wisdom, worthy of the greatest of sages: The first words a person’s face says to another is, respect me. The only way for us to give witness is to live what we do, and be what we are in the midst of banal, everyday realities. If redemption is the motive for the coming of Christ, then Incarnation is the method. Killing can take different forms as all who live in community know. A contemptuous attitude, a wounding word, phrases that assassinate are other ways to kill. Christians are not the only martyrs of charity. Muslims are, too.

This volume also includes the Testament of Christian de Chergé, which undoubtedly will take its place as one of the spiritual classics of the 20th century. This deeply moving document, written less than three years before he was martyred (but by his request not opened until after his death), concludes with this word to his executioner:

And to you, too, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you, too, I wish this thank you, this A-Dieu, whose image is in you also, that we may meet in heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases God, our common Father. Amen! Insha Allah!

John Kiser has done his homework. The interesting notes at the end of the book prove it. There is also a most useful glossary of termsvery helpful for those unfamiliar with Islamas well as a chronology of the main events marking the history of Algeria and a bibliography.

After reading The Monks of Tibhirine, it is clear that Father Christian cultivated a like compassion in the writer John Kiser, who came to know the monk and his people in the course of his extensive research.

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9 years 4 months ago
                    Paris, March 23, 2009
- Criminal Court Referral -
Jean-Baptiste Rivoire Indicted for
Premeditated Voluntary Violence - First Hearing in Paris Court of Justice - October 1st, 2009

                        Five years after the death of grand reporter Didier Contant, on February 5, the Parisian judge, Patrick Ramaël, who has been investigating into the circumstances of his death, ordered the indictment of journalist Jean-Baptiste RIVOIRE before the Correctional Court of Paris for premeditated voluntary violence.
                        This quarrel between journalists have thus far not attracted the attention it deserves; yet this strange case goes far beyond a mere professional rivalry:
                        Rivoire and Contant were both investigating into the the death in 1996 of the Monks of Tibhirine.
                        In January 2004, Didier Contant, who had published a first article in Le Figaro Magazine, was preparing to publish a new article that would have totally contradicted the thesis of Rivoire.
                        During his last investigation, the reporter had found new witnesses stating that the monks had been killed by the GIA, and he had gathered evidence casting doubts on the credibility of Abdelkader Tigha. However, the investigation of Rivoire relied heavily on the statements of the latter, a  sub-officer deserter from the Algerian army, who accused the army of being responsible for the murder of the Tibhirine monks.
                        The revelations of Tigha have been widely exploited by a number of people with keen interest in the situation in Algeria and who have been accusing the Algerian government for several years without qualification of manipulating Islamist terrorism.
                        With the intention of preventing any further publication by his colleague, Jean-Baptiste Rivoire contacted several Parisian editorial offices invoking reliable sources to accuse Didier Contant of being an Algerian and French secret service agent.
                        Several journalists heard by the judge Ramaël confirmed having witnessed Rivoire’s accusations, as well as the serious nature of such a foil, which inevitably condemns the targeted person to a total loss of credibility and to his professional death...
                        Didier Contant not bear to be slandered and attacked in his professional integrity in this way.
                        Four years ago, Rina Sherman, Contant’s companion, filed a criminal suit. She has since published her own investigation in a book entitled "The Eighth Death of Tibhirine"* as well as in a film, "Paris of my exiles."
                        The inquiry has now fully confirmed the allegations against Jean-Baptiste Rivoire.
                        A reporter voluntarily sets out to manipulate information, creates a vile calumny, diffuses it in professional circles where no-one bothers to cross-check his information, the victim pays the price…  That was the Contant case.
                        With this referral to the criminal court, one can henceforth refer to the Rivoire case.

                        - Éditions Tatamis, Paris, 2007
                        - Lazhari Labter Éditions & Le soir d’Algérie, Alger, 2007
                        Le huitième mort de Tibhirine will be published in Arab in 2009 by Lazhari Labter Éditions in Algiers.
                        Paris of My Exiles, a film by Rina Sherman


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