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Last Catholic Monk Who Survived Massacre at Algerian Monastery Dies Aged 97

Pope Francis greets Br. Jean-Pierre Schumacher, the last survivor of Tibhirine, on 31 March 2019 in Morocco. Credit: Vatican Media

Catholic monk Jean-Pierre Schumacher was left to tell of the ill-famed 1996 massacre at the Algerian monastery of Tibhirine in which seven of his confreres were brutally killed.

But as the world celebrated the Solemnity of Christ the King of the universe on Sunday, November 21, the “last of the companions of the martyrs of Tibhirine”, as Br. Jean-Pierre was referred to, also passed on.

Reporting the death of the monk on Monday, November 22, Agenzia Fides wrote, “The last survivor of Tibhirine has left this world. His heart stopped on the morning of Sunday, November 21, the feast of Christ the King of the Universe, in the monastery of Notre-Dame de l’Atlas, located in Midelt, on the slopes of the Moroccan Atlas, the last Trappist strongholds in North Africa.”

The information service of Propaganda Fide reported that Br. Jean-Pierre would have turned 98 next February. He had moved as a monk to Algeria in 1967.

Superior Christian de Chergé and the other six monk confreres of Br. Jean-Pierre were kidnapped on the night between 26 and 27 March 1996, in the country that was devastated by civil war.

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Agenzia Fides reports that Br. Jean-Pierre, together with Amèdèe (who died in 2008), had escaped the kidnapping because that night he was on duty as the concierge, in a building that was adjacent to the monastery.

Two months after the kidnapping, the severed heads of the seven monks were found along a road. Reports indicate that they had been shot and their heads severed from their bodies.

Their bodies were never found while their heads were found on 21 May 1996 looking mummified as they had been buried and then disinterred before being left beside a tree in Algeria. Their burial took place at the monastery on 4 June 1996 after a solemn funeral at the Cathedral of Algiers.

The seven who served at the Catholic Archdiocese of Alger were beatified on 8 December 2018 together with 12 other martyrs of Algeria.

Before his death, Br. Jean-Pierre recounted the long years of fraternal life spent together with his confreres, saying, “It was so beautiful.”

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The massacre at Tibhirine has been partly attributed to the clandestine gangs of the Armed Islamic Group, the Islamist terrorist organization born in 1991 after the Algerian government refused to recognize the electoral results favorable to the Islamist forces.

Agenzia Fides, however, reports that the perpetrators of the massacre were never identified with certainty. 

The Algerian Civil War was an armed conflict between the government of Algeria and various Islamist rebel groups, which began in 1991. The conflict is said to have effectively ended with a government victory, following the surrender of the Islamic Salvation Army and the 2002 defeat of the Armed Islamic Group.

Agenzia Fides reports that four years after the martyrdom of his confreres, Br. Jean-Pierre had moved to Morocco, becoming prior of the Trappist community of Notre-Dame de l’Atlas.

He is said to have always wondered why he survived when his confreres were brutally murdered in the ill-famed Algerian civil war that claimed an estimated 200,000 lives.

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“Several times he (Br. Jean-Pierre) confessed the weight of a question that always accompanied him: ‘Why had the Lord allowed me to stay alive?’ Over time, he had perceived that his destiny as a ‘survivor’ of the massacre coincided with the mission of ‘witnessing the events of Tibhirine and making known the experience of communion with our Muslim brothers, which we continue now here in the monastery of Midelt, in Morocco,’” Agenzia Fides reports.

The monk and Amédée are said to have identified themselves as “the little remnant” of Tibhirine in their new home.

“Our presence at the monastery was a sign of fidelity to the Gospel, to the Church and to the Algerian population,” he says in the Agenzia Fides report.

The information service of Propaganda Fide explains that the Tibhirine Trappists did not want to become martyrs, adding, “But in fidelity to their monastic vocation they wanted to share with all Algerians the risk of being the target of blind violence, which in those years bloodied the country and multiplied the massacres of innocent people.”

“As French they could leave, but they didn’t,” Agenzia Fides reports.

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The two survivors stood out for the way in which they encouraged peaceful co-existence between Christians and Muslims.

Br. Jean-Pierre is said to have once told a French journalist, “In Tibhirine, the monastery bells rang and the Muslims never asked us to silence them. We respect each other in the very heart of our common vocation: to adore God.”

He is also said to have admitted to waking up to pray at a time that Muslims prayed.

“In Morocco… we live this communion in prayer, when we get up at night to pray, at the same time when our Muslim neighbors are awakened by the muezzin.”

He added, “Fidelity to the appointment of prayer is the secret of our friendship with Muslims.”