Dom Armand Veilleux, OCSO
Abbot Emeritus of Our Lady of Scourmont (Belgium)
Assassinated where they worked
The Beatification of the Martyrs of Algeria
The Church in Algeria was drastically reduced in number at the moment of national independence in 1962. Conversions from Islam to Christianity were forbidden, all forms of missionary activity, considered as proselytism, were equally excluded. Hence the Church found itself reduced to the essential, living the Gospel.
The activity of religious from abroad consisted essentially in putting into practice chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew, ‘I was hungry…, I was thirsty…, I was sick, etc’. Nineteen of these witnesses to Christian charity, killed between May 1924 and August 1996, were beatified at Oran last December 8th, They had put themselves at the service of the Algerian people without distinction of race or religious adherence. It was right to beatify them as martyrs, for they were all authentic witnesses to universal love. This celebration offered to the world not simply the example of individual witnesses but the holiness of the local Church.
Among the services offered to Algerian youth by the Church were several libraries where young students, almost all Muslim, could come and study. It was in one of these libraries, frequented by more than a thousand young people from the popular quarter of the casbah, that the first of this line of martyrs, Brother Henri Vergès and Sister Paul-Hélène Saint-Raymond, were assassinated on 8th May, 1994. It is significant that, like many after them, they were killed at the very place where they worked in the service of the Algerian population.
A Church reduced to the essential
The beatification of Pierre Claverie and his eighteen companions gave a witness as an example of that of the whole local Church. A few months later, in October, two Spanish Augustinian missionaries, Sisters Paniagua Alonso and Caridad Alvarez Martin, were shot down on their way to Mass near the place where they cared for handicapped young people. On 27th December four White Fathers were assassinated at Tizi-Ousou where they were offering many services to the local population. It is obviously their very presence that the commanders of the assassins wanted to expunge.
After about a year of calm three religious sisters, whose whole life had been consecrated to helping the most deprived, underwent the same fate, namely two sisters of Our Lady of the Apostles, Denise and Bibiana in September 1995, and Odette a Little Sister of the Sacred Heart in November. The fate of the monks of Tibhirine is better known. They have been presented by Pope Francis as an example of community sanctity in his Apostolic Instruction of 2018 on sanctity. They were taken from their monastery during the night of 26th March, 1996, and killed about a month later. Their heads reappeared about a month after their death, near Medea. The fact that their bodies have not been found has a highly symbolic value. Their remains are mixed in the Algerian soil with those of more than 200,000 Algerian victims of the same violence.
To complete this sad and noble list, Pierre Claverie, Bishop of Oran, was assassinated on 1st August, 1996, with his young Moslem chauffeur, Mohammed, at the gate of his residence. Born in Algeria, he returned there as a Dominican and for several years before becoming bishop worked there in a library devoted to the young people of Algeria, at Glycines. Another witness to charity must also be mentioned, Bishop Henri Tessier, now aged 89, who was present at the beatification on 8th December. He was head of the Church of Alger during all those tragic years and was the caring pastor of almost all these martyrs of Christian charity.