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Las Casas Lecture by Jean-Jacques Perennes OP - "the message of the martyrs of Algeria", and a reflection on the film Of Gods and Men

Thursday, December 12, 2013
This evening at 5pm in the Aula at Blackfriars, Oxford, the Las Casas Institute is delighted to be hosting Jean-Jacques Perennes OP, who will be giving a lecture entitled: “Witness of the Gospel in a world of violence: the message of the martyrs of Algeria”. All who can make it are most welcome to attend.

Jean-Jacques is a Dominican Friar of the French Province, but lives in Cairo where he is the director of the IDEO. Established by the Dominican Order in 1953 at the request of the Holy See, the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies (Idéo) comprises a team of scholars and researchers wishing to promote a better understanding among Christians and Muslims.

Jean Jacques has a particularly strong link with the martyrs of Algeria, being a personal friend and for 10 years assistant to his fellow Dominican, Bishop Pierre Claverie of Oran, Algeria, who was assassinated in 1996 at the hands of the Islamic Salvation Front. In 1991, the ISF had won Algeria's first free national elections, only for the results to be voided by the military, secular government. During the 1990s, in retaliation an extreme fundamentalist Muslim group known as the Armed Islamic Group committed violent atrocities aimed at more secular Muslims and the Christian minority.

Jean Jacques has written a biography of his martyr-friend, entitled, A Life Poured Out. In his book we learn that Bishop Claverie was only too aware of the danger he faced due to the dramatic tensions in Algerian society. "Reconciliation is not a simple affair," he wrote in 1995. "It comes at a high price. It can also involve, as it did for Jesus, being torn apart between irreconcilable opposites. An Islamist and a kafir (infidel) cannot be reconciled. So, then, what's the choice? Well, Jesus does not choose. He says, in effect, 'I love you all,' and he dies."

Those words proved chillingly prophetic. Bishop Claverie was killed on 1 August 1996, just two months after the brutal beheading of seven Trappist monks in Tibhirine, Algeria. He died alongside his Muslim friend and driver, Mohamed Bouchikhi, when a bomb exploded in the bishop's residence. These Trappist monks have recently been brought to far greater prominence by the beautiful film, Of Gods and Men.

With a view to tomorrow’s talk some of the friars sat down with students of the Hall to watch the film yesterday evening. What follows is a brief narrative and reflection on the heroic qualities of these monks as depicted in the film.

The early scenes of the film give us a sense of the daily life in the monastery, the work, the production of goods for sale to provide a livelihood, the positive relations with the local people, both in terms of trade, but also the provision of medical services, clothing and wise counsel as needed.

One of the most touching scenes in the whole film, and one which tells us a great deal about the vocation to religious life, is a dialogue between the elderly monk-physician, Brother Luc, and a young girl hesitant about arranged marriage. After a pause in their conversation on the nature of love, she asks him, “Ever been in love?”

The old monk leans over and replies, “Yes, several times. And then I encountered another love, even greater. And I answered that love. It’s been a while now. Over 60 years.”

The monks in the film are not given some idealised portrayal. They are very human and easy to relate to: at times we see them vacant, a million miles away from the task at hand; we see them scared; we see them argue, we see them going about their daily chores; we see them forgive, and most importantly we see them pray. It is their prayer in common and individually which is so obviously the source of heroic decision to remain in their monastery, in spite of great danger to themselves. It is prayer which enables them to discern where God has asked them to be.

The film charts their dawning realisation of how grave the risk is to them, when, after a spate of killings of foreign workers outside the monastery, they themselves are confronted at gunpoint. In a poignant moment as the terrorists are leaving, Christian, the Abbot calls out to them to let know that tonight, Christmas Eve, is the night the Prince of Peace was born. The terrorists who arrived with violent clamour leave in silence.

Silence is, in fact, a recurring theme in the film. One of its most beautiful aspects is the regular juxtaposition of the silence of monks’ lives and the noise outside. Even when the chaos of the world threatens the monastery, and the noise crashes in, there is still a quietness in the gentle determination which meets it. This is typified by Abbot Christian when he refuses to dialogue with the terrorists inside the bounds of the monastery, after they refuse to lay down their weapons.

As the film progresses the choice between flight or the strong possibility of martyrdom becomes ever more stark. As a community, they discuss how each of them feels about leaving or staying. It is the eldest monk who reminds that they need not take a snap judgment, but should pray and reflect on it.
It is not a straightforward process, the heroic path rarely is. The youngest monk after witnessing roadside killings has a Gethsemane moment, he prays fervently to God “Help me, help me” as he is feverish with fear. In a subsequent conversation with the Prior he laments how fear of death prevents him from sleeping, he wonders what purpose his death would serve. The Prior responds that staying would be mad, mad as becoming a monk! He reminds him that he has already given his life to God. The young monk responds that he does not understand what purpose martyrdom would serve. The Prior reminds him that they stay out of love not desire for martyrdom, and that love endures everything.

This last point is important - the monks do not seek martyrdom, they are clearly scared of a violent death, but they have a stronger motivation than their fear – love. It is the love of Christ which gives them the strength to accept martyrdom if that be the cup from which they must drink, it is the love of Christ who they see present in the surrounding people that puts them at their service regardless of the cost.

Eventually as a community they come to a decision to remain. As they reflect on the time since the initial violent intrusion the Abbot remarks that they have found their salvation in their daily tasks, the work, the prayer, the Mass, the cooking, the cleaning, the service for others – all at the service of God. It is for this that they stay and in staying faithful to Christ and to these tasks they give the ultimate gift of their lives. In closing all I can say is that if you have not seen this film yet, you must! And if you have, watch it again, it gives more with every viewing.

If you wish to learn more about the Martyrs of Algeria, short biographies of the martyrs between 1994 and 1996, who are drawn from many different Orders can be found here - http://www.africamission-mafr.org/sang_martyrgb.htm.


Toby Lees OP

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