Solidarity Blessed by Blood


Convivium, 13 December 2018

Canadian Muslims stood in solidarity last month with Jews shattered by slaughter in a U.S. synagogue. Now, Father Raymond de Souza writes, Islamic Algeria has welcomed beatification of Catholic martyrs killed by murderous fanatics claiming to act for Islam. The past, Father Raymond reminds, does not define the future.

Image: Tibhirine Monastery

We featured here yesterday a beautiful testimony of unity and healing after religious violence. The occasion was the massacre at the Pittsburgh synagogue. The result was “rings of peace” around synagogues, formed by Muslims in a manifestation of solidarity in grief.

That took place close to home. Something more remarkable took place in Oran.

I expect that you know little about Oran. I confess that I had never heard of Algeria’s second city until recently. But what took place there last Saturday was a truly historic moment, a moment full of hope.

For the first time in history a beatification ceremony was held in a Muslim country. The Catholic bestowal of the title “blessed” expresses the Church’s conviction that the person is in heaven; it is the final step before canonization as a saint. The new “blesseds” in this case were martyrs from 1994 to 1996, killed by Islamist jihadis during Algeria’s civil war.

In 1991 an Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), won the first round of national elections. The military stepped in, seized power, cancelled the elections and banned the FIS. This provoked a brutal civil war, with some 100,000 Algerians killed in the subsequent decade. The civil war did not spare foreigners, and elements of the Islamist rebels also targeted Christians in Algeria.

The martyrs declared in Oran included the former bishop of that city, Algerian-born Pierre Claverie, and 18 others. The bishop was murdered by a bomb at his home, which also killed his Muslim driver, Mohamed Bouchikhi, a reminder that Muslims are the most numerous victims of jihadism, dying even when Christians are the targets.

(Though the Muslim driver could also be considered a martyr of sorts, the Catholic Church only beatifies or canonizes Catholics.)

The 18 other martyrs came from France, Spain, Tunisia and Belgium, and were killed between 1994 and 1996. The best known of the martyrs are the monks of Tibherine, French Trappists who were kidnapped from their monastery south of the capital Algiers in 1996. Islamist forces demanded the release of prisoners in France. When that did not happen, the monks were beheaded. Only their heads were recovered for burial. The story of the Trappists was the subject of the 2010 film, Of Gods and Men, which was awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2010.

Less than 25 years ago, Islamist terror was so prevalent in Algeria that even monks who worked among the poor people, providing education and medicine, were not safe. The murder of the French monks so shocked France, the former colonial power in Algeria, that church bells throughout the country were solemnly tolled after the bodies (heads) were discovered. Little did France know then that in 2016 a priest would have his throat slit while offering the Holy Mass in France itself.

In 2018, in Oran, in the very same country, a major Catholic religious event could be held openly and in peace, albeit with more security than is usual at such events. The declarations of martyrdom were welcomed broadly in Algeria, which is almost entirely Muslim. Indeed, celebratory events were held, together with Catholics, at the local mosque.