Born in France, Christian de Cherge spent his youth in Algeria, where his parents taught him to respect Islam. His dad told the kids, “Let’s not kill each other over names.” As a young adult, he could share God-talk more easily there than in France. One friend, Mohammed, the father of ten, who shared a common love of God intervened when thugs aimed their rifles aimed at Christian. Because he defended Christian as a godly man, Mohammed was himself killed that night.
Christian later wrote, “In the blood shed by this friend, who was assassinated because he would not practice hatred, I knew that my call to follow Christ would be lived sooner or later in the same country that gave me a tangible sign of the greatest love possible.”
Studying for the priesthood in Paris and Rome, Christian added intense study of the Qur’an. He wanted to seek “the notes that are in harmony” between Christianity and Islam, incorporated in a “both/and” spirituality. Later, as prior at Our Lady of Atlas monastery in Algiers, he created there a safe space for respectful Muslim-Christian dialogue and prayer. Chapel bells mingled with the muezzin’s call to pray. Christian once counseled a Muslim woman worried about marrying a Christian, “we are only an envelope around a soul. Don’t worry about your skin.”
The Trappists farmed, became friends with local villagers and distributed medicine to the sick. Yet as violence escalated, the monks debated whether to remain, knowing they were in danger.
When one monk said, “we’re like birds on a branch—we don’t know if we’ll be leaving,” a Muslim woman complimented their commitment: “We’re the birds. You’re the branch.” Eventually all came to peace with the decision to stay, realizing that they rested in God’s embrace. They relied on their strengths: God, each other, their common prayer.
Eventually, rebels kidnapped and killed seven monks, but Christian had written a prophetic and forgiving letter three years before. He worried that his death would intensify anger at Islam. Despite his concerns, the last testament is filled with gratitude, extending even to his “friend of the last moment.” He meant his murderer, whom he would meet in heaven “like happy thieves,” who had both stolen paradise.
For more information, see the film, “Of Gods and Men,” or the book, The Monks of Tibhirine by John Kiser