Father Christian de Chergé ocso and the Dialogue with Islam
Born into a military family characterised by the values of courage and rectitude, Christian de Chergé discovered Algeria and Islam when he was only five years old. He was impressed by the prayer of Muslims, and his mother, a woman of profound depth and nobility of soul, explained: 'they are praying, one must never ridicule them. They too adore God.' This was without doubt the reason why he was always very sensitive throughout his life to the prayerful and even mystical dimension of Islam.
Christian's first contact with Algeria as a child only lasted a few years, but it left an indelible mark on his spirit and his heart. He returned there more than fifteen years later, during his seminary years, for military service, which he chose to complete as an officer, in the family tradition. This twenty-three year old officer made friends with an Algerian country policeman, Mohamed, the father often children and several years his senior. During a confrontation Mohamed saved Christian's life at the cost of his own. When Christian promised to pray for him, Mohamed had replied: 'I know that you pray for me. But you see, Christians do not know how to pray!' Christian was profoundly influenced by this reflection on the image given by Christians in Algeria.
On becoming a priest of the diocese of Paris in 1964 and destined, from all appearances, to a brilliant ecclesiastical 'career', Christian de Chergé left the diocesan clergy five years later to become a Trappist in Algeria. He first made a two-year noviciate in Notre Dame d'Aiguebelle in France; then, after a brief spell in Notre Dame de I'Atlas at Tibhirine in Algeria, he went to Rome for two years study in Arabic and the Koran. Having returned for good to the monastery of Notre-Dame de l'Atlas, he began listening to the voices of Algerians and of Islam.
During subsequent years, under the inspiration of a White Father, Claude Rault, a group composed of Muslims and Christian began to meet regularly at Tibhirine for prayer and dialogue. This was the Ribat el Salam or the 'bond of peace'; Christian was not the initiator, but he was an active and influential presence until his death. From the time when he was elected Prior of his community, in 1984, the dialogue with 'ordinary' Islam, with their humble neighbours and men and women of prayer without political preoccupations, became an important aspect of community life. On more than one occasion, particularly during meetings in Europe, Christian underlined the importance of this dialogue at the level of experience of prayer. DIM invited him to one of its meetings at Montserrat, Catalonia, in 1995; and in a brief but important communication he emphasised the numerous dimensions which Islam has in common with monasticism, even if there has never been organised monasticism within Islam - in particular 'submission to God' (this is the meaning of the word Islam), ritual prayer, the desire for God and reverence for his Name.
When Algeria was plunged into a cycle of violence in 1993, the community of Tibhirine united firmly with their Prior in complete renunciation of all violence, from wherever it might arise, and in fidelity to all forms of communion and sharing established both with the local Muslim population and with the Algerian Church. This fidelity would bring seven of them, including Christian, to a violent death which they certainly did not desire, that they even feared, but the possibility of which they accepted with serenity as a consequence of their commitment and their fidelity to the name of Christ.
This fidelity and true community commitment are succinctly expressed in Christian's Testament, which is without doubt one of the most beautiful spiritual writings of the 20th century. This text, full of love for Algeria and respect for Islam, giving the affectionate title of 'brother’ to the one who would assassinate him thinking that he was doing it for Islam, is surely one of the finest pages ever written on 'interreligious dialogue'.
Armand Veilleux ocso
Translated by Hilda Wood osb