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How to Understand the Beheading of a French Priest

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Faced with the murder and beheading of seven of his monks by Islamists 20 years ago, the Archbishop of Algiers went one better than the Archbishop of Rouen this week. He didn’t talk about the slaughter of an elderly priest as the “unnameable”.  He saw the road of Calvary. In fear of his own life amid a ferocious conflict, Monseigneur Henri Teissier, 67 years old and a French professor of Arabic, responded by celebrating mass for six nuns and monks all those years ago by reading from St Matthews, Chapter 25, verse 13: “Watch, therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of Man cometh.”

The tiny congregation had originally gathered that day in 1996 to remember one of France’s first religious martyrs in Algiers, Vicomte Charles de Foucauld, the soldier-turned-priest who was assassinated by an Islamist in Tamanrasset in 1916; his murder set an awful precedent for the killing of all French priests by those who claimed they were motivated by Islam. Surely Father Jacques Hamel would have known of him. The Vicomte was killed only 14 years before he was born.

But when Teissier talked to me of the seven monks taken from their monastery in the beautiful hills above Tibherine, his words might have been uttered about the killers of 86-year-old Father Hamel. “They will kill a boy of two or an old man of 85 [sic]. I think they are out of their consciences. They work under their understanding of Islamic law – ‘We have to kill the enemies of the Lord’ – and it is finished. We think not only of our life but of the lives of all the people in Algeria…” A generous man, Teissier.

The Algerian civil war – between a brutal Islamist army and the equally savage Algerian army which had fatally cancelled elections which Islamists would have won in 1992 – had by 1996 already reached Syrian proportions: babies with their throats cut, women massacred in front of their husbands, men routinely decapitated. The police tortured their prisoners by pumping water into their stomachs until their victims exploded. It was inevitable that the killers from the GIA, the Islamic Armed Group, would turn upon all foreigners – and that also meant priests and bishops.

The monks of Tibherine, whose own Golgotha would be made into a poignant and superb film, Of Gods and Men, were taken from their monastery where they had looked after and given medical aid not only to the local Algerian Muslim villagers, but to the Islamist fighters themselves. That may have been their undoing. More on that later.

But first, back to Teissier and his appalling, magnificent reflections upon their deaths. “It is true that we found only their heads,” he said quietly on that hot Algiers afternoon, the sound of police sirens echoing over the city. “Three of their heads were hanging from a tree near a petrol station. The other four heads were lying on the grass beneath. But it is marvellous that the families of those monks maintained their friendship for us and for all Algerians. They had visited the monastery. They had been able to accept the loss of their sons. They knew it was not all Algerians who did this thing.”

Could such words be repeated today, I wonder, to the racists and right-wingers who demand the punishment of all Muslims for the crimes of a few? At 87, Teissier, who took Algerian citizenship in 1962 after the country’s ghastly independence war against the French, is still alive; indeed, he pleaded for good Christians and good Muslims to remain together and “build bridges”, as he put it, after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January last year. He is, after all, an expert at the grotesquerie as well as the magnificence of faith.

So here is what he also said to me on that broiling Algiers day two decades ago: “The most difficult thing is to know that every day some people die, mothers cry for their sons and daughters. We ourselves are not in the same situation as we were before this [Algerian] crisis. When you begin celebrating the Eucharist, you cannot help remembering that Jesus was murdered by human violence – in the name of religion. Now we have to understand the risk in this society, that we are walking in the footsteps of Jesus. We cannot look at the cross of Jesus as we have done before. Before it was an abstract thing. Now it is a daily reality.”

How wonderfully spoken. How appropriate are these words amid the horror of Father Hamel’s sacrifice. But is that what it was?  A “sacrifice”?  Or does that obscure the act of murder most foul?

It was Teissier who took the phone call which told him that all seven monks had been decapitated. The Algerian authorities blamed the GIA led by a man called Sayah Attia, who one of the Tibherine monks had supposedly recognised when he answered the door, the same man whose face had appeared in a photograph that identified him as the murderer of Yugoslav civilians whose throats had been slashed close to the monastery.

But there is, alas, another deeply disturbing story about the monks. Enquiries by the French security services – and by journalists on Le Monde newspaper – suggested that after the GIA had kidnapped the seven men, the Algerian army, which maintained close liaisons with the French military, attempted a rescue mission. But they blundered. Not only did they kill the GIA men but shot dead the monks as well. Unwilling to reveal their disastrous operation, they then cut off the heads of the monks – as if they were the result of Islamist murders – and buried the bullet-riddled torsos of the seven. Hence only the heads were found.

 

Another theory – and we shall never know the truth – is that the Algerian security police wanted the monks kidnapped and dead as a punishment for all those who assisted the GIA, even when their only sin was to give them medical aid.

There is still doubt as to who, in the very same year, murdered the Bishop of Oran. Mgr Pierre Claverie died in a bomb explosion on the very same day he had met the French Foreign Minister, Herve de Charrette. “The bomb went off in the street,” Teissier told me then. “He was crushed by the door of the chapel and his brains were found on the chapel floor. It was absurd, idiotic, unconscionable.”

But there is no doubt about who killed Father Hamel. Adel Kermiche was one of two men who murdered the old priest. He was born only a few months after the Tibherine monks were murdered. No connection, of course. But according to neighbours, Kermiche was born in Algeria. Now there’s a historical clue if anyone has the courage to search for it.

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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