Father Christian de Cherge was the Prior of the Monastery of Our Lady of Atlas, and his tragic martyrdom was presented in the movie Of Gods and Men.
But he is a hero for how he lived, not how he died.
Born into a French military family, Christian first met Islam when he was five and his family was stationed in Algeria. He was moved by the prayer life of the Muslims around him, and his mother taught him to respect their search for God.
As a twenty-three year old seminarian, de Cherge returned to Algeria in 1959 to complete his compulsory military service. Technically a French soldier fighting against the Algerians, Christian formed an unlikely friendship with a Muslim police officer named Mohamed a father of ten. They would take long walks together and discuss religion, politics, and life. But on one of these walks the two men were ambushed by Algerian rebels. De Cherge, dressed in his military fatigues, would have been killed on the spot but for Mohamed interceding and convincing the men to let the young Frenchman go free. “I will pray for you,” was all de Cherge could say to his friend. The next morning Mohamed was murdered for what he’d done.
From then on, Christian committed himself to peacemaking in Algeria. He was a brilliant student, and the hierarchy had him pegged as a rising star in the Church. But Christian wanted the lonely desert of Algeria, not Paris. After ordination, he studied Arabic, Islam, and the Quran, and eventually had his request to return to Africa granted in 1971.
There, in Tibhirine, Algeria, in the shadows of the Atlas Mountains, he would become the Prior of the Trappist monastery. For decades he and his fellow monks lived with their Muslim neighbors in peace. His form of evangelism was to offer the locals employment, medical care, and literacy tutoring. De Cherge also organized an annual interfaith conference to foster Muslim-Christian dialogue, and even invited Muslims to stay at the monastery as his special guests.
But as the relationship between the Christian monks and the Muslim community grew, the radical Islamist group GIA became more agitated. Several times Fr. Christian and his monks were advised to leave, but after prayer and reflection they decided to stay as witnesses to the reality of the peaceful Christian-Muslim co-existence that had been established.
Just after midnight on March 27, 1996 twenty heavily armed GIA soldiers broke into the monastery and took seven of the monks, including Fr. Christian, hostage. One month later, after the French had refused to negotiate, the extremists released a letter stating that they had beheaded the monks.
After news of her son’s fate reached Christian’s mother, she opened a letter he’d given her two years earlier, “to be opened in the event of my death”. In it, he predicted that he would die at the hands of extremists, and then closed his letter by addressing his ‘friend of the last moment”—his murderer:
“…Yes, I want this thank you and this good-bye to be a ‘God Bless’ for you, too, because in God’s face I see yours. May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both.”
The cause for Fr. Christian de Cherge’s beatification has been opened. He is a saint for our troubled times; a true peacemaker who loved beyond human limits.
Christian de Cherge is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.