Dying for Inter-Faith Dialogue

Derek Zimmerman (aged 14) FAITH Magazine January-February 2007

In a time of crisis in the Middle East, it is key that Muslims and Christians overcome the centuries-old tensions between them. The story of Christian de Chergé provides a remarkable example of someone who sacrificed himself while trying to bridge the rift.
Christian de Chergé was born on January 18, 1937, in Algeria, to a French military family, and followed his father’s footsteps in becoming a soldier himself. His interest in Islam began in 1959, while stationed in the town of Tiaret with the French “pacification” force. He had befriended Mohammed, a Muslim policeman, and together they took weekly walks to discuss politics, culture, and theology. One subject that came up again and again, was the tense relationship between Algeria’s Christians (its French colonizers), and Muslims (its native population).

On one of these walks, a squad of Algerian rebels ambushed the two men. De Chergé, wearing his army fatigues, was sure his end had come. Then Mohammed stepped in between his friend and the attackers and told them to leave de Chergé alone: “He is a godly man.” Amazingly, they let both men go. But this act of bravery cost Mohammed his life: he was found murdered in the street the next day.

The episode gripped de Chergé for days. He later wrote, “I cannot forget Mohammed, who protected my life by exposing his own...and who was killed by his own brothers for refusing to turn over one of his friends. He didn’t want to make the choice between the one and the other.”

Mohammed’s sacrifice changed de Chergé forever. Because of it, he decided to commit himself to God and to the cause of peace. When his tour of duty ended he returned to France and entered a Trappist monastery. Later he studied to become a priest and asked to be transferred to an Algerian base. This wish was granted, and in 1971 he moved back to Africa, eventually becoming the ecclesiastical head of a rural district in the Atlas Mountains.

As abbot, de Chergé made decisions that his overseas superiors saw as unusual and even unwise. Instead of simply evangelising, he offered the locals employment. He gave the sick medical care, and taught them how to read. (Seeing himself as a student, too, he moved to Rome at one point, and studied Arabic culture and language there for two years.)

De Chergé also organized an annual interfaith conference to promote Muslim-Christian dialogue. He even invited Muslims to stay at the compound of Notre-Dame d’Atlas, his monastery. By all this, he aimed to show the world that Muslims and Christians can live together under one God or Allah. As he explained it, “the only way for us to give witness is... to be what we are in the midst of banal, everyday realities.”

Despite de Chergé’s efforts (or because of them?) the GIA (Armed Islamic Group), a terrorist network associated with Al-Qaeda, was angry with the Trappists, whom they saw as meddlers. During the night of March 26-27, 1996, a local GIA squad kidnapped de Chergé and six other brothers, held them hostage, and then decapitated them. Their heads were found several weeks later.

De Chergé’s story does not end here. Two years earlier, he had written an incredible letter to his family in France. It was sealed, for opening only after his death. In it he explained:
“If the day comes that I am a victim of the terrorism that seems to be engulfing the world... I would like my community, my church and my family to know that I gave my life for God and Algeria. I know the caricatures which a certain Islamic ideology encourages and which make it easy for some to dismiss the religion as hateful. My death will justify the opinion of those who have dismissed me as naive. But such people should know that at last I will be able to see the children of Islam as He sees them. He whose secret joy is to bring forth our common humanity amid our differences.”

To many people, the death of de Chergé and his fellow Trappists proves the worst stereotypes of Islam. But to him it was the expected cost of being a peacemaker. To me it presents a challenge that carries an unavoidable question. Today, when so many people are willing to die in the ongoing war on terror - a war often seen as a battle between “Christian” America and its supposed Muslim enemies - am I ready to die for peace?

With thanks to Bruderhof.com

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