Algerian Martyrs: ‘Our Lives Are Already Given Away’

A look at the holy lives moving toward beatification.

A scene from Of Gods and Men
A scene from Of Gods and Men (photo: Sony)

Pope Francis has formally recognized as martyrs 19 French and Spanish priests and religious who had died in odium fidei (in hatred of the faith). Somewhat officially known as Pierre Claverie and Companions, they perished during Algeria’s civil war (1991-2002), and they include one bishop and the seven monks whose story is depicted in the critically acclaimed 2010 film Of Gods and Men.

The background for the martyrdoms is this:

In 1991, the Islamic Front of Salvation (FIS, by its French acronym) won the first round of legislative elections in a landslide on a platform to form an Islamic state. The corrupt, secular and socialist incumbent government, in concert with the military and security forces, suspended the results. With this, the FIS’ armed militia, AIS, began fighting the government, starting Algeria’s civil war.

At the same time, a like-minded but independent group known as the GIA (the French acronym for Armed Islamic Group) pledged violence until it overthrew the government, taking as its motto, “Blood, blood, destruction, destruction. No truce, no dialogue, no reconciliation!”

Starting in 1993, AIS declared war on both those who did not adhere to its interpretation of Islam and any foreigners who did not leave. Not to be outdone, GIA started attacking foreign and domestic targets.

Between the killings carried out by two groups and the government’s security forces, roughly 150,000-200,000 civilians died during the civil war, including 99 imams and the 19 Catholics.

The first to undergo martyrdom were Sister Paul-Hélène Saint-Raymond, a Little Sister of the Assumption, and Marist Brother Henri Vergès. They died May 8, 1994, while welcoming high-school students into the diocesan library they ran in the Casbah, Algiers’ poorest neighborhood. Disguised as police, three terrorists approached and shot them. Just a few miles away, a march for peace and against Islamism was taking place. Terrorists also attacked that gathering.

When Archbishop Henri Teissier met with his archdiocese’s priests and religious, urging them to flee the violence, Sister Paul-Hélène had replied, “Father, our lives are already given anyway.”

Brother Henri came to Algeria in 1966 at age 36, and, like sister, he was resolute in standing againstthe violence around them. Not long before his assassination, he said, “God simply sent me to sow the seed in such a field chosen by him, to sow peace in him, leaving to him the care of growth, as in the life of Jesus himself.”

The next murders came Oct. 23, 1994, with the slayings of two Spanish women religious of the Congregation of Augustine Missionaries, Sister Esther Paniagua and Sister Caridad “Cari” Alvarez.

Sister Esther was a nurse who worked with sick and disabled children and had painstakingly learned fluent Arabic. Sister Caridad worked with the elderly and poor. Their murders happened while they walked to Mass.

Next, two days after Christmas, four Missionaries of Africa (“White Fathers”) were celebrating one of their number’s name day in the town of Tizi Ouzou. One of them had driven more than an hour from Algiers to join in the feast. As they celebrated that noon in the mission’s courtyard, assailants gunned them down. Their deaths came in retaliation for the killing of four hijackers by French security forces earlier that year in Marseille.

Just over eight months later, assassins then cut down Sisters Angèle-Marie Littlejohn and Bibiane Leclercq as they returned from Mass.

A month and one week later, Nov. 10, 1995, Sister Odette Prévost was killed. A nurse, she had served the Algerian poor for 27 years.

In his book on these martyrs, Benedictine Father Martin McGee writes, “Odette purposely decided to remain in Algeria in order ‘to be Christ’s own presence.’ She understood her decision to stay in light of the Eucharist — Jesus’ self-offering on our behalf.”

In this light, her death on a Friday while walking to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is fitting.

The most internationally famous of the martyrdoms came next. These were of the Trappist monks at the monastery of Tibhirine, near Médéa. It was not religious animosity that prompted their kidnapping on the night of March 26-27, 1996. Rather, it was the desire of the GIA to hold them hostage until authorities released a former leader from prison. Negotiations broke down, and the terrorists executed the monks.

The group of those killed during the civil war in odium fidei takes its name from last martyr: Bishop Pierre Claverie of Oran.

Unlike any of the others, Bishop Claverie grew up in Algiers. Despite this, ethnic Algerians rebuffed him during his youth. This led him to claim he grew up in a “colonial bubble.”

The Algerians revolted against France in 1954, starting a war that ended with French capitulation in 1962. During this period, Claverie’s father sent him to college in Grenoble, France, where he affiliated with others opposed to Algeria’s independence.

His sister Anne-Marie Gustavson told the Register this group would go into church vestibules and commandeer periodicals advocating the end of France’s colonial rule. After two or three times, opponents stationed themselves to guard these magazines.

One of these guards asked Pierre, “‘Do you know, do you really know, what you’re doing?’ Something happened there. Just this one sentence made him think,” she said. While it was likely not the definitive seed, he did quit this group shortly thereafter.

It was also around this time that he felt his calling to the priestly life confirmed. Ordained in 1965, his heart converted, he resolved to help Algeria build a new nation by returning, which he did in 1967. Starting in 1973, he ran the Centre des Glycines, an archdiocesan institute for the study of Arabic and Islam. Then, in 1981, he was consecrated as the ordinary of the Diocese of Oran, remaining its bishop until his death.

His sister saids he was an equal-opportunity defender of the marginalized. “Pierre was very outspoken,” whether it be about the extremists or the government (indeed, some believe the government assassinated him).

Bishop Claverie was also passionately committed to dialogue. He believed a foundation of friendship must precede evangelization.

This doesn’t mean he was a syncretist when it came to religion. For instance, he would not pray with Muslims. He was firmly committed to his Christian faith and rejected any hint of political correctness. He knew theological dialogue would take a very long time to bear fruit, according to his sister and other sources, including an interview with the bishop’s biographer.

In late July 1996, upon returning to his diocesan residence from a meeting in Algiers with the French foreign minister, a bomb went off while he and his Muslim driver Mohammed were still in the car. Both died as their blood mingled together.

Father Pérennès believes the lesson from Bishop Claverie’s life — and certainly those of the other martyrs — is “often we think there is no alternative to violence and conflict. I think his life is a way of saying: There is an alternative; there are other ways. You have to find them, maybe you have to build them, you have to build these bridges, but they do exist. Don’t be naïve, but don’t become trapped between these two alternatives — resignation or violence. Build together other paths, other ways.”

Register correspondent Brian O’Neel writes from Quarryville, Pennsylvania.