By Carolina McCabe
Rabat – Behind massive walls in Midelt, central Morocco, lies the small Catholic community of Notre Dame de L’Atlas. The walls enclose a large courtyard, a small chapel, and a memorial for the seven brothers of Tibhirine who were killed in Algeria.
The community, belonging to the Cistercian order, was originally from the Atlas Abbey of Tibhirine near Medea, Algeria. During the Algerian Civil War, seven monks from the order were kidnapped, held for two months, and found decapitated in May of 1996. The Algerian government announced later that month that the heads of the clergymen had been discovered.
Two monks, Father Jean-Pierre and Father Amedee, managed to escape the kidnapping and survived the deadly attack.
In 2010, a film about the tragedy, “Des Hommes et des Dieux” (Of Gods and Men), won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.
The two surviving monks left Algeria and traveled to the current Notre Dame de l’Atlas monastery in Midelt, Morocco. The new order, which began in 2001, was formed by a community of monks who joined the two survivors of Tibhirine. Inside the compound, the monks work, pray, live, and welcome visitors. Father Amedee died in 2008, and Father Jean Pierre Schumacher is the only living survivor of the 1996 tragedy.
Living within the monastery are six brothers from France, Spain, Ireland, and Portugal. The brothers follow the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, also called Trappists, a Roman Catholic contemplative order dedicated to prayer.
Brother Anthony McNamara, a monk from Ireland, came to the monastery after recognizing the increasing anti-Muslim sentiment in the aftermath of ISIS killings. McNamara became invested in the Syrian crisis and learned about the devastation that Muslim people experience attributed to ISIS.
It was after McNamara saw powerful images and news stories about victims in Syria that he came to the realization that the violence was affecting everyone. “This brought home to me how we are all, Christian and Muslim, caught up in this terrible violence,” said McNamara. “We all believe in the same God, and here are these terrible murders being carried out in His name.”
As he celebrated midnight mass on Christmas Eve of 2015, McNamara decided to go to Notre Dame de L’Atlas to become a member of what he calls “a praying community amongst a praying community.”
A praying community of Christians and Muslims
Since Notre Dame de L’Atlas is a praying order, the monks come together seven times a day to pray. “Our Muslim brothers and sisters are called to pray five times a day. So together in this little spot of Midelt, Christians and Muslims pray to the same God,” said McNamara.
Even though the monastery is hidden, the surrounding community nonetheless plays a key role in the church. During Lent, the six-week Christian religious observance leading up to Easter, the Midelt community supports the brothers in their daily fasts. At times, members prepare an evening meal for the brothers in order to show their support.“We are supported by prayer, kindness, love, generosity, and their acceptance,” said McNamara.
Likewise, during Ramadan, the brothers in the monastery fast in solidarity with the Muslim community around them and are often included in their celebrations. The monks attend weddings and funerals and celebrate birth and death alongside their neighbors.
McNamara hopes the community “feels that we show respect and love to them, I certainly hold them in great esteem. They are a God-loving community.”
Beatification in Algeria
On December 8, 2018, the 7 monks and 12 clergymen, victims of the Algerian civil war, were beatified in Oran, Algeria. It was the first beatification ceremony in a Muslim nation, and Muslims and Christians alike attended the ceremony.
The distinction means the Catholic Church considered the 19 to have performed at least one miracle on earth and to have entered heaven. After beatification, the Catholic Church looks for a second miracle before the canonizing, or making the individuals saints.
Five of the monks from Notre Dame de L’Atlas travelled to Algeria for the ceremony. However, due to passport issues, McNamara stayed in Morocco and watched the ceremony on television.
In McNamara’s opinion, the highlight of the ceremony was when two men, both named Mohammed, were celebrated. One of the men, a policeman and father of 10, saved the life of Prior Christian de Cherge of the Cistercian Community in Tibhirine. The two had formed a spiritual friendship. One day, Mohammed protected De Cherge’s life from the National Liberation Front. He was assassinated the next day.
“This supreme act of love by a Muslim friend was to mark Christian profoundly for the rest of his life,” said McNamara.
Before Christian de Cherge was kidnapped and killed in 1996, he wrote a testament to be opened if he was killed by the war. In the testament, he asked that his death be associated with other equally violent ones that are forgotten.
“If it should happen one day – and it could be today – that I become a victim of the terrorism … I would like my community, my Church, and my family to remember that my life was given to God and [Algeria],” said the testament. Additionally, De Cherge forgave the person who would ultimately kill him.
De Cherge proclaimed a great love for Islam in his testament. “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.”
The other man celebrated at the beatification ceremony, also named Mohammed, was 22 and a friend of Bishop Pierre Claverie of Oran. Despite the risk he took by working with the bishop, Mohammed remained loyal. In August 1996, Mohammed picked up Bishop Pierre from the airport. When they arrived at the bishop’s residence that evening, a remote controlled bomb was ignited. The two died together.
For McNamara, it is important that the ceremony remembered the two men. “The ceremony was a great tribute not only to the 19 Christian Martyrs but to the thousands who died during those violent years,” said McNamara. “The two Mohammeds represent for me how the blood of Christians and Muslims was mingled together in great violence.”
Hope for the future
As for the future of Notre Dame de L’Atlas, the monks are excitedly anticipating the visit of Pope Francis to Morocco in late March.
“We feel it is a very important occasion both for Christians and Muslims and that it will bring both faiths closer together,” stated McNamara. The pope’s visit will be the second time a pope has visited Morocco. Pope John Paul II made the first visit in August 1985.
Despite challenges and conflict between faiths around the world, McNamara remains hopeful that the Christian and Muslim faiths can come together as demonstrated by Notre Dame de L’Atlas and its surrounding community in Midelt. “In a world where there is so much violence, it is good to be a part of a praying community of Christians and Muslims living side by side in peace and love adoring and praising the same God.”