“WE HAVE SLIT the throats of the seven monks, in accordance with our promise.” The declaration, signed by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria, hit Paris like a bombshell May 23.

Three days later, the bells of 40,000 churches throughout France tolled simultaneously in honor of the seven French Trappist monks who had been kidnapped from their monastery in southwest Algieria two months earlier. It was the first time such a solemn tribute had been paid to anyone since the death of Pope John Paul I 18 years ago.

Like many of their fellow Christian clerics in the North African Nation, the seven Religious, aged between 45 and 82, had decided to stay on in the civil war-ravaged country. They had lived, worked and prayed there, some for as long as 50 years, despite the GIA's threat two years ago to “eliminate all Jews, Christians and infidels from the Moslem soil of Algeria.”

In two years’ time, 18 monks and nuns, 14 of them French, have been murdered by Moslem extremists. Some 300 priests and nuns still remain in the country. Few are likely to heed the French government's renewed appeal to all French citizens— including those in religious orders—to leave Algeria forthwith, “because their safety can no longer be guaranteed.”

“There is no longer any question of our leaving,” Archbishop Henri Teissier, archbishop of Algiers, the country's capital, said on a recent visit to Paris. “the more time passes, the more our solidarity with the Algerian people grows. To leave now would be to abandon them in their hour of peril.”

But the brutal murder of the monks has severely shaken members of all faiths, Moslem as well as Christian, prompting messages of condemnation, and of sympathy from around the world for the monks’ families. In a May 26 address to some 50,000 faithful at St. Peter's Square in Rome, Pope John Paul II appealed to “all men of good faith, and especially to those who regard themselves as the sons of Abraham” (who include the Moslems) to ensure that “never again, in Algeria or anywhere else, such acts, which constitute the greatest offense against God and man, happen again.”

In France, home to Europe's largest Moslem community, most of them of Algerian origin, Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris mosque, said he was “overwhelmed and shattered” by the news of the monks’ deaths and called on France's three million Moslems to join him in a day of “prayer and meditation for these innocent victims.” The auxiliary bishop of Paris, Claude Frikart, met with Boubakeur who called their May 24 exchange a symbol “of the convergence between Islam and Christianity, their fraternity and solidarity in this time of trial.”

Cardinal Francis Arinze, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, told Vatican Radio May 27 that the slaying would not slow Catholic-Muslim dialogue. “On the contrary,” he said, “it should give it a new impetus.” The Nigerian prelate noted that “the great majority of Moslems agree with what the Pope said (on his recent trip to Tunisia) &hellips; ‘[that] no one can kill in God's name.’”

Even the Islamic Salvation Front, the main opposition movement in Algeria, condemned the murders, claiming, as its European spokesperson said, to see in “this sadistic and immoral act” the mark of the Algerian government's “special services,” while Iran denounced the assassination as an “anti-Islamic act.”

In Paris, French President Jacques Chirac paid tribute to these “men of peace [who] embodied the spirit of toleration, fraternity and solidarity,” adding: “May their sacrifice be a lesson to us all.” A minute's silence was observed by both houses of the French Parliament in memory of the slaughtered monks, while thousands gathered at the Place du Trocadero on May 28 for an all-party, all-faith tribute.

On learning of their deaths, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris went straight to Notre Dame cathedral and slowly blew out, one by one, the seven candles which had been kept burning since the monks’ abduction. In a shaky voice, the cardinal said: “they gave their lives; they did not seek to save themselves. They believed that pardon and love was far stronger than hate. We must encourage all those out there who struggle for peace.” After a moment of silence, he expressed his own grief: “I am extremely sad. I knew some of them.”

Cardinal Lustiger unwittingly offended France's predominantly moderate Moslem community by appealing during the brief, impromptu ceremony to “all Moslems” to “drive out the hatred” from their hearts. “One cannot take lives in the name of God,” he cried, as the assassins of the seven monks had claimed to do.

In response to the ensuing outcry, the cardinal (who has been in the forefront of talks to bring Catholics and Moslems closer together) hastened to explain that he had not meant to refer to the vast majority of ordinary Moslems, particularly in France, “who are not the bearers or hatred or violence,” but rather to the Islamic religious authorities who failed to condemn the thousands of murders carried out by fanatics in the name of the Qu'ran and God.

The May 26 celebration of Pentecost in France was tinged with the sadness of prayers for the slain monks. Various Trappist monasteries throughout the country reported their Masses were unusually well-attended, with some visitors traveling many miles to express solidarity with the order.

An estimated 50,000 civilians, including 116 foreigners (one third of them French), have been killed in Algeria's civil war that began after the military-backed government canceled parliamentary elections which the Islamic Salvation Front seemed poised to win four years ago.

Algerian Moslem Fundamentalists, and in particular their extremist terrorist wing, the GIA, accuse France, the former colonial power in Algeria, of supporting the Algerian regime. As such, France has become a prime target for the Moslem extremists, both in Algeria and in mainland France.

Algerian extremists are believed to have been behind the wave of terrorist bombings carried out in Paris and Lyons last year, which killed nine people and injured nearly 200 others. Police raids on suspected Moslem extremists in France resulted in hundreds of arrests, with about 200 still being detained in French jails.

In claiming responsibility for the kidnapping of the monks, the GIA demanded the release of their imprisoned militants, threatening otherwise to “slit the throats” of their hostages. But they gave no names other than that of former leader Abdelhak Layada, who is on death row, not in France, but in Algeria.

The same demand was made by the GIA terrorist commando which hijacked an Air France plane in Algiers in December 1994, threatening to blow it up in mid-air. Three days later, the four-man commando unit was killed after French elite troops stormed the plane, grounded at Marseilles, and succeeded in rescuing all but three of the 277 hostages.

This time, the French rescue attempt— if there was one—was clearly less successful. The kidnappers claim to have killed the monks only after President Chirac and his foreign minister had “broken off the dialogue” with the GIA. The French government, supported by statements from the Cistercian (Trappist) Order in Roe, insists that it never had any contact direct or indirect with the kidnappers.

But persistent rumors of secret talks and a possible bungled rescue attempt by the French government have been further fueled by a claim by Father Gerard, prior of one of the Cistercian monasteries in France, that a “french emissary” had visited the monks shortly before their assassination and had given them the Eucharist.

Father Gerard's comments have since been refuted as “null and void” by his own superior, Father Yves de Broucker, who said Father Gerard has been misled by a person who was not totally in his right mind. Suspicions, nonetheless, remain.

Diana Geddes is based in Paris. Robert Kelly contributed to this story.