The memory of the Trappist monks from the Our Lady of Atlas Abbey of Tibhirine, who were assassinated twenty years ago, is still alive. We met with Father Jean Marie Lassausse, who is in charge of the monastery of Tibhirine.
Father Lassausse never gets tired of telling people the story of the French monks who decided to remain at the monastery despite the danger, and who were kidnapped and then killed on the night between March 26 and March 27, 1996. They offered their life to God and to the people of Algeria whom they deeply loved. And after twenty years, the length of a generation, one can still see their presence in those people who are committed to brotherhood and dialogue between Muslims and Christians. But above all, the memory of the Trappist monks is alive among a hundred families of Tibhirine, with whom those religious shared their life.
Father Lassausse, the last survivor of the Tibhirine monastery, knows that the people here would love a new community of monks to move in. Tibhirine has not forgotten the monks. They were good to the village and completed the lives of its inhabitants. “After attempting twice to establish a new community of monks in Tibhirine, the then Archbishop of Algiers, Henri Teissier, put me, priest of the Mission de France and an agronomist, in charge of the management of the monks’ legacy during the transition time, which I would have never imagined, would last fifteen years”, Father Lassausse says, “my role here is designed to ‘cultivate’ the spirit of the Tibhirine monks which consists of one very practical side, that is carrying out the farm work on the monastery land, while on the other side, my presence here is supposed to be proof that living at the Tibhirine monastery is possible and that a new community of monks can move in. I’ve never regretted having accepted this assignment, even if it has not been easy.
Tibhirine is still an open issue between two countries, former colonial ruler, France and independent Algeria. The circumstances of the monks’ kidnapping and death remain controversial due to lies, falsehood, hidden files, and several misunderstandings”.
“In these circumstances”, Father Lassausse continues, “I thought it was necessary to continue to be present and to work with discretion and in this way, I was able, year after year, by learning the local traditions and the language, to be recognized as “ibn el balad” (son of this place) – which is a very effective pass for the daily life at the monastery”.
Finally, in this year, which marks the twentieth anniversary of the monks’ death, a new presence is expected to be established, the ‘Chemin Neuf’, which is a new community focused on ecumenical dialogue in order to preserve memory, to create new forms of solidarity and brotherhood between the monastery and the population, as well as to keep the monastery as place of reference not only for the Christians of the Church of Algeria, but also for the Christians of the whole Church, which in recent years has learned about the ‘spirit of Tibhirine’, which is the spirit of tolerance and brotherhood between different religions. “These goals are not easy to achieve, especially after the In Amenas attack in 2013 and the killing of Hervé Gourdel in Kabylia in 2014”, says Father Lassausse, in fact, after those tragic events, the Algerian authorities, have increased stringent security measures. Concretely, this means that we have to report our every move to authorities and we are always accompanied by armed guards.
Besides, permits to visit us are often denied to foreigners living in Algeria, and the same Algerians who want to come here, must give their full personal details to police. Sometimes I wonder what the Algerian authorities really want: a discreet presence or the closing of the monastery? Of course, we are foreigners living discreetly in the ‘house of Islam’. But any foreigner, while having obligations toward the host country, also has rights. That is why, today more than ever we are called to dialogue and to reflect together on reciprocal rights. However, if we want to stay in Tibhirine, we must accept rules and restrictions without renouncing, however, to work in order to create a platform for dialogue between religions for a better cohabitation. We must never forget that the long presence of the Cistercian monks in Tibhirine was aimed at increasing solidarity and brotherhood, in spite of difficulties. Nothing can deter us from continuing to build opportunities for true dialogue in a world expected to become more and more respectful of differences”. (A.P.)