Tibhirine Legacy

The letter written two years before his death by the Tibhirine abbey’s prior, killed along with six other monks in 1996 in Algeria

Algiers, 1 December 1993/Tibhirine, 1 January 1994

If one day (and it could even be today) I should become a victim of the terrorism that seems now to want to involve all the foreigners that live in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, and my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country.

To accept that the sole Master of every life cannot be made extraneous to this brutal conflict. To pray for me: how could I be found worthy of this offering? To know how to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones that are left in the indifference of anonymity. My life does not have a higher price than any other life.

It is worth no less and no more than any other life. Whatever the case, it does not have the innocence of childhood. I have lived enough to consider myself an accomplice of the evil that seems, alas, to prevail in the world, and also of that evil may strike me out of nowhere.

I would like, if the moment comes, to have that flash of lucidity that allows to solicit the forgiveness of God and the forgiveness of my brethren in humanity, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart those who have wounded me. I cannot hope for a death of that kind. It seems to me important to declare this. Indeed. I do not see how I could be happy at the fact that a people that I love were indistinctly accused of my murder. For what they will perhaps call the ‘grace of martyrdom’, to owe that grace to some Algerian, above all if he says that he acts out of faith to what he believes to be Islam, would be too high a price to pay.

I well know the contempt with which the Algerians taken as a whole have come to be dismissed. I also know the caricature of Islam that a certain kind of Islamism encourages.

It is too easy to put one’s conscience at rest by identifying this religion with the forms of fundamentalism of its extremists. Because Algeria and Islam are another thing, they are a body and a soul. I have proclaimed enough, I believe, in front of everyone, what I have received from Islam, finding in it so often the central recurrent theme of the Gospel that was learnt when I was on the lap of my mother (the whole of my first Church), specifically in Algeria, and, already then, with all my respect for Muslim believers.

Evidently enough, my death will seem to vindicate those who have seen me in precipitate fashion as being a naif or an idealist: ‘tell us now what you think!’ But these people must know that my most piercing curiosity will be finally resolved.

Thus, God willing, I will be able to immerge my gaze in that of the Father in order to contemplate with Him His children of Islam as He sees them, totally illuminated by the glory of Christ, the fruits of his Passion, invested with the gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion, to re-establish likeness, playing with differences.

This lost life, totally mine, totally theirs: I give thanks to God who seems to have wanted it entirely for that joy, despite everything and against everything.

In these thanks in which everything is said, by now, about my life, including also you, friends of yesterday and today, and you, friends of this earth, beside my mother and my father, my sisters and my brothers, a centuple given according to the promise! And you too, friend of the last moment, who did not know what you were doing.

Yes, for you as well, I want to foresee these thanks and this adieu. And that it may be given to us, blessed thieves, to meet again in Heaven, if God, our shared Father, so wishes, Amen! Insciallah.

Christian de Chergé, Prior of Notre-Dame de l’Atlas

[From L’OSSERVATORE ROMANO, June 1st 1996]

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Children of both Heaven and Earth

CHILDREN OF BOTH HEAVEN AND EARTH

We shouldn’t then expect that God wants us to shun this earth, deny its genuine beauty, and attempt step out of our bodies, our natural instincts, and our physicality to fix our eyes only on the things of heaven. God did not build this world as testing-place to see if we’re worthy of heaven. It’s not simply a stage upon which we, as humans, play out our individual dramas of salvation and then close the curtain. It’s a place for all of us, humans, animals, insects, plants, water, rocks, and soil to enjoy a home together.

That’s the root of a great tension inside us: Unless we deny either our most powerful human instincts or our most powerful religious sensibilities we will find ourselves forever torn between two worlds caught between the lure of this world and the lure of God. I know how true this is in my own life.

I was born into this world with two incurable loves and have spent my life and ministry caught and torn between the two: I have always loved the pagan world for its honoring of this life and for its celebration of the wonders of the human body and the beauty and pleasure that our five senses bring us. With my pagan brothers and sisters, I too honor the lure of sexuality, the comfort of human community, the delight of humor and irony, and the remarkable gifts given us by the arts and the sciences.

But, at the same time, I have always found myself in the grip of another reality, the divine, faith, religion. Its reality too has always commanded my attention – and, more importantly, dictated the important choices in my life.

My major choices in life incarnate and radiate a great tension because they’ve tried to be true to a double primordial branding inside me, the pagan and the divine. I can’t deny the reality, lure, and goodness of either of them. It’s for this reason that I can live as a consecrated, life-long celibate, doing religious ministry, even as I deeply love the pagan world, bless its pleasures, and bless the goodness of sex even as, because of other loyalties, I renounce it. That’s also the reason why I’m chronically apologizing to God for the world’s pagan resistance, even as I’m trying to make an apologia for God to the world. I’ve live with torn loyalties.

That’s as it should be. The world is meant to take our breath away, even as we genuflect to the author of that breath.

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Towards an Islamic Spirituality – A Pilgrim and a Reader…

Towards an Islamic Spirituality – a Pilgrim and a Reader…
By Eliseo “Jun” Mercado, Jr.,OMI
Badaliyya – Philippines

A. Introduction

In the search for a new spirituality even in our contemporary world, it is always preferable to draw from our rich religious and cultural traditions. Religious as well as followers of many and holy paths have once again delved into their living traditions to retrieve the “fire” and the “spirit” that has imbued our forefathers and mothers through the years in meeting and responding to the challenges and crisis of their age.

The present reflection is not a guide through the spiritual classics of Islam, that is, the Giants of the “Sufi” tradition like Hassan al-Basri, Mansoor al Hallaj, Jallaludin al- Rumi, Muhammad ibn ‘Arabi, etc. The presentation is akin to a choice between the “Big” or “Small” paths or a choice between the two Theresa’s of the Carmelite Traditions – St. Theresa de Avila or St. Therese of Lisieux. People can easily identify with St. Therese and her so-called “little way”, so the paper is a presentation of Islamic spirituality in the “little path” tradition.

B. The Common Spiritual Ground

1. Desert
2. Guide
3. Path, Water and Fire

1. Desert. The three Semitic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – have a common MATRIX, the DESERT. It is no accident that the spiritual traditions of the three above monotheistic religions are rooted in this very harsh condition. Desert is desert and no amount of glamour and romanticism even from “spiritual writers” can change its cruel and harsh realities.

As a young religious, I had always wondered why our religious life also had its deep roots in the desert. I tried to fathom this mystery by actually venturing into the harsh desert of Upper Egypt in 1981. With a guide I visited the caves of our ancient and venerable Desert Fathers. There I sat in one of the caves to simply get a physical and spiritual “touch” with the environment that gave birth to a spirituality tied to the beginnings of monasticism. The caves showed many crude stone carvings of crosses made by people that tried to “find” God in the desert. Being brought by a tradition of touching holy and sacred grounds, I began milling around and touching the cross carvings in the walls as I relished the memories of the holy men and women who were in these caves.

It was there that I discovered the meaning of asceticism. There was no way to survive the desert without being ascetic. The harsh environment imposes a regimen on life that reduces needs to the barest minimum. The environment, that is, the desert has become the “enemy”. In such an environment, the sole reliance is on God! Discipline and ascetical practices are introduced to reduce want and needs, understood then as the tools of the devil. An ancient Arabic saying goes this way: “anyone who ventures into the desert and comes out becomes either a saint or a fool”. In reality, there is but a hairline difference between a saint and a fool.

The desert context is one of the powerful symbols in Islam. The prophet Muhammad was often drawn into the cave of Hira in his search for the path to God. It was in one of his journeys into this cave that the first revelation (Sura 96) was made. The experience with the “divine” was so moving that tradition celebrates the event as the night of power (laylat-ul qadr) during the month of Ramadhan (the 9th lunar month of the Islamic Calendar).

The first revelation is an invitation to READ or Recite (iqra) in the name of God, the Lord of creation. The strong emphasis on the invitation to “recite” shows that the initiative in the journey to God is begun by God. It is an invitation to a relationship that begins in the acknowledgement of God’s Lordship (Rabbika) thus a true worship (ibadat) of God necessarily must begin with being God’s “reader” or “reciter”. In time, through faithful “reading” and “recitation” of God’s word, the reader becomes “nearer” to God and this would bloom into “friendship” (Siddique). The peron who is close to God becomes friends of God.

To connect it to its matrix, the desert, the “invitation” to become a reader in the midst of that harsh and cruel environment is actually a call to life. Here we hear the echo of Psalm 95: “Today, listen to the voice of the Lord: do not grow stubborn, as your fathers did in the wilderness”.

The voice of God is an invitation to read and recite (iqra) that God is a mighty one and the Lord over all the gods. It is a call to listen to God and to be taught by Him (Sura 96: “thy Lord who taught by the Pen and taught man that he knew not.”). It is an invitation to abandon all the idols of the world and cling to the Lord for unto Him is the Great Returning!

2. The Guide (Shayk). The discernment of God’s invitation requires a GUIDE (Shayk). This is the reason that God sent messengers and prophets through the ages not only ‘recite’ and ‘proclaim’ God’s word but also to show the path. The need for guide is even made more urgent in the desert environment. No one ventures into the desert without a guide. The guide knows the way to the life-giving oasis. Without the guide, one is lost and dies.

In a more spiritual tradition, a person desiring to be God’s friend joins a path always associated with shayk. The shayk guides the “initiate” in the reading and meditation of the God’s word. The purpose of the shayk is to help the initiate discover the “hidden” (batin) meanings of the Word of God as contrasted to their latent or literal meaning.

Even today, no one joins the Pilgrimage (Hajj) without a Guide, else he simply moves and moves around without visiting the House of God. Yes, in the journey towards spirituality, “spiritual director” (a shayk) is not an option but an OBLIGATION.

3. The Path/Way. It is fascinating to note that all our desert religions revolve around (1) Path, (2) Water and (3) Fire. In Islam the path is always identified to the “straight path” – “the path of those whom Thou hast blessed, not of those against whom Thou art wrathful, nor of those who are astray” (Sura 1).

That right path is the Law of God (Shari’a). Faithful observance of the Law of God is walking through the straight path that leads to life as symbolized by the spring of water or well in the desert. In the daily life, one faithfully observes the Law of God, particularly in the worship of God – Confession of Faith (Shahadat), Prayer (Salat), Giving a portion of your wealth to the poor (Zakat), Fasting in the month of Ramadan, and the Visit of God’s House at least once in a lifetime.

The Islamic Law (Shari’a) to many non-Muslims appears harsh, especially the Criminal Law (Hudud), the most glamorized aspects of the Islamic Law in “western media”. Yet to Muslims, the Islamic Law lays the right movements of rituals, the right behavior and relationships in community and above all indicates duties and obligations. Thus it is the rudder that keeps the boat in the right direction and keeps it from keeling.

The person who desires His Holy Will faithfully observes the Law. The faithful observance of the Law leads to the resting place – to freedom and life as well. Among the initiated to the path (tariqa), a fire is given (HUWA in the form of lamp). He (God) is the fire that illumines the Path.

The Tariqa (The Path). In some Tariqa circles (“brotherhood” of Ascetics), the journey to God is often described as passing through seven (7) stages.

The first stage is nafs amara or the soul of the flesh. In this first stage, the faithful observance of the Shari’a is crucial since this is the way of the beginners.

The second stage is nafs alawama or the spirit of test. This is the narrow road and the way of the penitent thus it requires a discipline. This is the beginning of ascetic practices under the guidance of a shayk. The color of this particular stage is yellow (the light), the outlook of ascetics.

The third stage is nafs al-mulhamat or the listening spirit. This is to train oneself to listen and to receive inspiration. This is the stage for inward looking and probing – the beginning to journey into the heart… The color is Red.

The fourth stage is the quiet soul. The self is found and the reality as well. One begins to experience one’s closeness to God … the Truth. The color is white.

The fifth stage is the happy Soul or nafs aradit. This is the beginning of a journey within God. The knowledge that is hidden is penetrated… God is filling one’s nothingness – State of emptiness is experienced. The color is green.

The sixth stage is the soul seeking approval or nafs mardiya. This is describes as “going away from God”. One goes back to the way of the Shari’a and find their essence. The color is Black.

The seventh stage is the soul of perfection or nafs kamilat. The journey is God. The journey is UNION with God.

C. The Journey and the Pilgrims. Spirituality is the journey through the Path that leads to life. This is physically lived during the performance of the Hajj. (An account of the Hajj… Embarking on a journey, Entering into the state of ihsan (purity), Standing in His Presence, Readiness to wait and heed his bidding, Renouncing Satan, and the Great Sacrifice – ‘Idul-Adha.)

The state of purity that is required upon embarking on a journey is similar to the biblical call: “Blessed are the pure of Heart, they shall see God” (Mt. 5:8). It is the singular devotion to the One True God and thou shalt NOT associate anything with Him.

Singular devotion to God is not fundamentalism of sort that is often associated to fanaticism. The Qur’an speaks that “It is not piety, that you turn your faces to the East and to the West. True piety is this: to believe in God, and the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets, to give of one’s substance, however cherished, to kinsmen, and orphan, the needy, the traveler, beggars, and to ransom the slave, to perform the prayer, to pay the alms” (Sura 2: 172).

D. The Reader (Lectio Divina)

A very powerful symbol of a person nearest to God’s Word is the one who reads His Word (the Qur’anic reading). He recites the Word of God from the heart and uses the Book (Kitab) as his guide. God’s Word absorbs the person in his whole being and this, in a way, expresses the “union” between the believer and the living Word of God (similar to partaking of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist). The first COMMAND given to the prophet is “READ” (Iqra) that is to what God has revealed.

I have a rebel – friend who in times of great distress finds rest/solace in the reading of the Qur’an. He would retreat in a corner and sits on his prayer mat with the Qur’an in front of him and begins his beautiful recitation of the Word of God. He and the people around him are transformed and mesmerized by the power of the Word. Yes, it works like magic and it is a miracle! This same reading of the Word of God in the Book (just in the same way as the eating of the Word of God made flesh) is the source and fountain of Holiness. As the great Chesterton said: “Yes, a tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs down because it is bewitched. In the same way why do eggs turn to birds or leaves fall in autumn or as Cinderella asked her fairy godmother why mice turned into horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’clock.”

E. Ahl al-Dhikr (The people of Remembrance).

The people who remember and are initiated to the remembrance of God are called the ahl al-dhikr. They meditate on the Word of God and discover the mystery “hidden” in the Word. Their life is devoted to the Divine pleasing (ridwan-lillah). Holiness is to “remember” and act and do what is pleasing to Him. It is a lifetime life of remembrance and a life that is pleasing to God!

We must not keep quiet…

We must not keep quiet…
“Kill us if they wish but our blood will speak louder than our voices. There is a message that only martyrdom can teach. We will not be threatened.”
By Archbishop Socrates B. Villegas

As our brother priest Father Richmond Nilo was being interred in Cabanatuan on June 15, the clergy of the Archdiocese of Lingayen-Dagupan gathered in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, to atone for the sins of blasphemy, sacrilege, and murder that our blessed Lord and His Church are being subjected to these days.

We shared with one another our doubts and confusions, our frustrations and heartaches, our anger and our afflictions, our tears and our hopes. We shared our faith. We shared from the heart. We do feel the pain of persecution, but we also know we are not forsaken. The consoling assurance of the Lord was overwhelming, too.

Searching our hearts

We allowed our hearts to be disturbed by the noise of blasphemy, sacrilege, and murder. We are not quiet. Our souls are ready to be disturbed for conversion.
In what ways have we contributed to the erosion of moral values so much relished by Catholic Filipinos for centuries? Is there anything of what we do or how we live or how we preach that makes those who ridicule the Church and curse God sound right?

Have we failed the Lord and failed in our mission to be credible teachers? Is not the ignorance of our people about moral values an indication that we have failed in our mission to teach? Are we really being persecuted or are we just being shaken from stupor?

We recalled how Shimei threw stones and cursed David, but David refused to stop the cursing. Perhaps the Lord will look upon my affliction and repay me with good for the curses he is uttering this day. (2 Sam 16:12)

Is this the time to live the Lord’s command, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you”? (Luke 6:28)
We prayed and searched for answers in grief but with hope, with anger but with tenderness.

The authority of experience

There is an authority that we churchmen hold or, at least, believe we hold. That authority comes from the faith transmitted to us from the first companions of Jesus. We teach that the Church stands on solid rock with Jesus as the cornerstone. We are keepers of tradition. Tradition has its authority.

There is another authority that universities hold. Schools of learning keep safe the authority of truth. They hold the wisdom than men and women down the ages have handed down to us. Experts and masters are holders of this authority.

But there is yet another source of authority that is growing in credibility among us – the authority of experience. It is neither divinely revealed truth nor a researched or invented learning. It is the glorification of experience as the best teacher. How can we refute experience?

These times perhaps demand from us not just to guard and teach the Truth that we have received or look at new expressions to teach those truths. Our countrymen need to experience us as friends, not as moralizing guardians. Our countrymen need to experience kindness from us before we give a homily on compassion. Our countrymen need to experience us as one of them. We can preach to empty stomachs if the stomach of the parish priest is as empty as the stomach of his parishioners. We must let go of our entitlements.

The growing importance of experience as teacher also prompts us, priests, to see and believe that God is at work among our people, that it is not just books that teach but ordinary people as well. Each person has a lesson to teach. If we are to continue our mission as teachers, we must not forget our need to be taught all the time. This calls for much humility from us. It needs patience. It needs an open mind.

We have met the enemy and he is us

We must not keep quiet but neither do we forget that we preach best not by talking but by example. We admit: We need to improve our homilies. This is the perennial complaint against us. The people crave for relevant, nourishing, and refreshing preaching. We need to make the sacraments and sacramentals memorable experiences in faith. Sloppy vestments and careless gestures at the altar do not inspire. We must avoid being too casual with sacred things, lest the sacred events become disdainful.

There are days of fasting and days of abstinence. We should fast more. Let us go farther and fast on our own beyond the required laws of fasting. Let us move deeper than where we are and return to ascetic practices. If our nation seems possessed by evil, let us not forget that some evils can only be cast out by prayer and fasting (cfr. Mark 9: 29).

We recognize that the best place to change society is in the confessional; unfortunately, we hardly sit there. The confessional increases our capacity for love. Conversions that happen in confession are the enduring conversions that change society. We need to take time to be visible again in the confessional waiting patiently for every penitent. True love waits. Mercy is not in hurry.

But we cannot keep quiet

How can we keep quiet when the blood of the killed is crying from the ground? How can we keep quiet when the majesty of God is being pounced on? How can we keep quiet when the noise of vulgarity is all over the air? How can we keep quiet when fake news seems more credible than truth?

Yes, we are dirty and filthy, dirtier than our detractors can imagine, but the Lord has looked kindly upon us. We are not here as holier than the flock. We are here as the most miserable among sinners but we have been raised to this dignity by the sheer kindness of the Almighty. We have no illusions of sanctity. But not even our sins can stop us from teaching the Gospel.

Woe to us if we do not preach. We cannot keep quiet. We would be judged by the Word made flesh for keeping quiet. Not even our sins can stop us from proclaiming the Gospel because the power of the Gospel is not from us but from God. We are earthen vessels (2 Cor 4:7)

From deeper prayer, we will refute error. From more fasting, we will share our love. From longer silence, we will teach right. From being forgiven, we will forgive. From being broken, we will heal. From our loneliness, we will console. From our dirt, we will rise with our people to return to the house of the Father.

It is not in our nature as priests to keep quiet. We are men of the Word. We cannot keep quiet, but we are not noise makers. We break our silence in order to be teachers by example ready even for martyrdom. We will keep teaching. Kill us if they wish but our blood will speak louder than our voices. There is a message that only martyrdom can teach. We will not be threatened.

Our only fear is to fail the Lord. We are not afraid. We trust in the Lord. For us life is Christ and death is gain! (Phil 1: 21)

May 11, 2018 – Lady Justice in the Philippines Committed Harakiri!

LADY JUSTICE HARAKIRI
MY TAKE IN CJ SERENO’S CASE…

The real issues involved in CJ Sereno’s case are NOT whether the SC has competence to hear the quo warranto proceeding, but the following:

First, The SC’s internal rule says that the QW should be heard when filed within ONE year after the person has assumed the office;

Second, the Constitution has LISTED the requirements for the position of CJ.

Third, the JBC has internal rules for considering nominees and since they are internal rules done by the JBC, the same JBC can dispense and suspend the same.

Fourth, when the Impeachment Proceedings are already in motion in Congress – the other co-qual branches of Government – The Executive and Judiciary – should by courtesy and by “lese majeste” principle should give way until the processes are completed.


To No. 1. Issue:
Former SC Justice V. Mendoza strongly argued that any QW proceedings after the one year prescription should be dismissed outright! I fully agree with Justice Mendoza’s opinion, particularly in the case of CJ Sereno who has been discharging the duties of Chief Justice for already SIX YEARS. A disqualification case beyond the prescriptive period is not only an issue of estoffel (too late… and if after six years the qualifications have NOT been questioned… it is rather whimsical and arbitrary to question such qualification.

The new Calida Principle that counting prescription period begins upon discovery is NOT tenable and arbitrary and political especially after six years! Calida said that this was brought only in the House Impeachment Trials, which was brought by a SC Justice who did NOT have the decency to inhibit himself… in a case he himself brought to the court. He was already a lawyer then and a tax payer he could filed the same QW within the one year period or at least brought this into the public within the year of the appointment of CJ Sereno. He remained silent for six years, by the principle of estoffel, he should remain SILENT until his death!

To No. 2. Issue.
Based on the principle of enumeration in the Constitution or in any positive law. The enumeration of powers or qualifications sets limits to what is required. Anything beyond the enumeration are NOT INCLUDED… otherwise the Constitution or the Law would have included them. CJ Sereno qualifies for the position on the basis of a Constitutional Enumeration!

To the No. 3 issue.
The submission of filed SALN or the filing of SALN is NOT in the Constitutional enumeration of requirements for CJ but simply an internal rule of JBC that the nominees have to submit. And in the concrete instance at bar, the JBS itself WAIVED that saidn requirement. Would a requirement that was waived explicitly by the BODY that is constitutionally mandated to screen nominees now be made a case for disqualification…?

In logical principle and based on the Roman Law – the power that made the rules is also given the power to undo/amend/dispense/waive the same rules unless otherwise explicitly prohibited.

To the 4th Issue.
There is an unspoken principle (not written in stone but written at the heart people in authority) among co-equal branches of government – that is recognition and respect processes and jurisdictions and competence taken by each co-equal branch. In this instance, the Congress of the Philippines has already taken jurisdiction and began the process of removing CJ Sereno by Impeachment Proceedings as mandated by the Constitution. By lese majeste among co-equal branch, the Judiciary should have refrain touching the case… However, the Judiciary maintains jurisdiction to review the processes of co-equal branch if there is an obvious abuse of discretion! Otherwise the Judiciary should KEEP OFF!

WELL I AM NOT A LAWYER BUT SIMPLY A READER OF THE LAW AND THE CONSTITUTION! BUT I BELIEVE THE NO. 4 SHOULD HAVE PREVAILED AND THE SC SHOULD HAVE ALLOWED THE WHOLE PROCESS OF IMPEACHMENT TO REACH ITS FINAL CONCLUSION. AS IT IS, THE SC’s INTERVENTION ABORTED THE IMPEACHMENT PROCESS AND SOLE JURISDICTION OF CO-EQUAL BRANCH OUTSIDE THE BOUNDARY OF “ABUSE OF DISCRETION”.

In 1973 I lost my faith in the SC when it ruled that there are NO LEGAL IMPEDIMENTS that the Marcos Constitution was duly ratified by raising of hands in the pulong pulong held for the purpose.

Yesterday, May 11, 2018, i LOST MY FAITH IN THE SUPREME COURT OF THE PHILIPPINES! SC – RIP!

Algeria – Tormented by Violence

Algeria tormented by violence, bearing witness to the possibility of a dialogue with Musli
Last update:
[This article is published in Oasis n. 18. Click here to buy a copy of this issue of Oasis and here to subscribe to the journal]

The monastery of Tibhirine – the gardens – has these prophetic words on its coat of arms: “Sign on the Mountains”. Indeed, it is 1,000 feet above sea level on the spurs of the Algerian Atlas, where the view is broad and the very beautiful sunsets made Brother Luc, the doctor who had lived in those gardens for fifty years, even during the harshest moments of the civil war; say: “Let’s wait for tomorrow’s sunset to go away!”. [1]

The most beautiful and deeply rooted plants of those gardens, which even today do not cease to provoke wonder and to generate questions, are the places of the lives and the graves of the seven brothers who were killed in 1996.

Every day they are visited by tens of people from every horizon, but above all Algerians and Muslims: Tibhirine has become more than ever before a sign on the mountains, an emblem and symbol of the mysterious reasons for which one can live and one can die, for love’s sake, in full freedom.

Only the decapitated heads of the brothers make fecund the land of the monastery, whereas their bodies, buried nobody knows where, as happened with so many other innocent victims of the civil war, make the whole of Algeria a great reliquary. Thanks to these men of God it is still possible to believe in the triumph of life over death and of love over hatred.

These gardens were planted in Algerian soil in the middle of the 1930s. At that time France could rely in its overseas territories upon the presence of a million settlers who for the most part were Catholics.

The monastery of Tibhirine was born and grew for these Christians. Conceived of like the great monasteries of the West, Tibhirine was built as a fortress, at the centre of a great estate, where the monks prayed, worked and lived in a simple and fraternal life, in contact with, and at the service of, above all their coreligionists, but also giving material help and indicating to the habitants of the locality, of Berber origins, a rational and modern way of engaging in agriculture.

For about thirty years, amidst all the changing events that mark the lives of all communities, Tibhirine grew or shrunk as an extension of a French monastery in the land of Algeria.

Not only guests, but guests who were friends…

The war of independence and the end of colonial power produced a great turning point: Algeria was emptied of its settlers. The great exodus of Christians changed not so much the deep heart as the face of the monastic community and its reasons for staying in the land of Algeria.

The hope of native vocations came to a halt and the monks were guests in a land that they have seen as belonging to their homeland. Love for the place and for their brothers which characterised their monastic life, which was lived according to the Benedictine Rules, led the monks to remain in a condition of poverty and weakness, supporting the lean Algerian Church, which was an almost invisible drop of water in the great Muslim sea, ‘a Cistercian wreck in the ocean of Islam’, [2] as Father Christian put it.

The new situation, with its consequent instability, led the community to near extinction: a reinforcement through new arrivals from French monasteries in 1964 and the dispensary of Brother Luc, which was open to all sick people who came (‘the devil as well if he comes’, he said), allowed the monastery new growth.

The gardens of Tibhirine, with the vast cloister of more than 300 hectares, were reduced to simple orchards of twelve hectares that were cultivated together with the neighbouring people. The long history of nearness to the people of the locality made the Christian monks not only guests but also guests who were friends.

The elderly brothers, who had persevered and were known by everybody, died one by one but remained always close to the inhabitants of the village which had grown up near to the monastery. In the monastic cemetery they were at rest under rough gravestones that bore only their names and the dates of their coming into and leaving this world.

Other brothers arrived: a few, but highly motivated, and the community became increasingly stable and rooted in the locality. The election of Christian de Chergé as prior of the community in 1984 marked a turning point and involved a leadership that was decidedly directed towards dialogue and an understanding of the religious inheritance of their Muslim neighbours.

Fr. Christian explained this relationship of deep friendship that was gradually developed: “People praying amidst other people praying… nothing could be explained outside a constant communal presence and the faithfulness of each member to humble daily reality, from the gate of the gardens, from the kitchen to the lectio divina and in to the liturgy of the hours. The dialogue that thus came to be constructed has its forms, which are essentially characterised by the fact that we never take the initiative. I would like to define it as being existential. It is the outcome of a long ‘living together’ and of shared concerns, ones that are at times very concrete. This means that it is rarely of a strictly theological character. We have, rather, the tendency to flee from diatribes of this kind, which we see as being limited. Essential dialogue, therefore, that is to say concerning the material and the spiritual at one and the same time, the daily and the eternal, as a demonstration of how true it is that the man or the woman who calls on us can be welcomed only in their concrete and mysterious reality of their being children of God, ‘created first in Christ? (Eph 2:10). We would cease to be Christians – and also simply men – if we were to mutilate the other as regards his hidden dimension so as to encounter him solely ‘man to man’, that is to say in a humanity emptied of any reference to God, of any personal relationship and thus alone with the Totally-Other, deprived of any way out to an unknown life beyond”. [3]

The key word of the monks of Tibhirine was thus “presence”. A presence that was friendly and fraternal, trusting that they would also be welcomed by their neighbours. The encounter with the other took place in daily life: it was a dialogue of life, inter-culturality and inter-religiosity put into practice, in an exchange of gifts which upheld each person in his or her own identity.

The Seven Brothers In Thibirine Trappist Monastery

Who were these men thirsty for the absolute, aware that they were carrying a treasure in vases of clay and were ready to discover it in the hearts, in the lives and in the religion of their neighbours as well?

A few words are sufficient to characterise the physiognomy of these seven brothers who were so different from each other and so united in the face of danger and death. Through the description of them made by one of the survivors, Fr. Jean-Pierre Schumacher, here is a draft of such a description. [4]

Father Christian De Chergé What struck me in him was his inner passion for the discovery of the Muslim soul and to live this communion with them and with God, albeit remaining truly a monk and a Christian. He wanted to be taken by everything in Islam which is a seed of the Word, a sign of His active presence and of His breath as a creator, to be as near as possible to his Muslim brothers: to go to God with them, but in Jesus Christ, in his Spirit and as an authentic member of his Church. Christian had to reconcile this personal appeal with that of the community, which was also a bearer of a mission of presence in a Muslim land.

Brother Luke He was not a priest, he was a brother. We could confide in him because he was full of wisdom. When we had a problem or a difficulty in our relationship with a brother, the first thing we did was to go to see Brother Luc because we well know how he would have responded. During our meetings, even during the period of tension and fear, he always had some words to make us laugh. He was valuable for our common life…As a medical doctor, he was in the dispensary for the whole of the day, and in addition he was responsible for the kitchen!’

Father Christophe What has stayed in my mind as regards Christophe during the last two years is his inner torment as regards the ‘Amen’ that he had to pronounce, which was so difficult to say but which he did not want to avoid and which he ended up by taking upon himself out of his love for Jesus who dwelt in him completely. He allowed himself to be led towards likeness with Christ and towards his Paschal Mystery. All of this was in line with his burning soul, directed forwards, concerned to abandon himself to love of Christ, of his brothers, of the poor…with his weakness, his frailties.

Father Bruno What characterised Bruno was his calm, his reserved, smiling and affable character, despite the impression that he gave when first encountered of being severe and in a hurry. The Superior of Fes, he loved the simple and hidden life that was led in this small monastery. In Fes, in the spring, a part of the garden and the walkway reserved to guests became a feast of colours thanks to the flowers that he grew: this was an expression of his secret soul.

Brother Michel A silent, poor and humble man, he lived in simplicity the giving of himself to God and the community. His search for God in the monastery was inseparably linked to the search for the soul of Islam, to be in communion with his Muslim brothers and to offer himself to them. By some brothers of the community and by many guests he was seen as a saint, but I doubt that he realised this…

Father Célestin The foundation and the source of the spiritual life of Célestin was his link with Christ through his priesthood and religious profession, the educational role that he had performed for twenty years with people on the streets (drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes), and his tie of friendship with an Algerian partisan that he had saved during his military service as a male nurse in Algeria and, through him, with the whole of the Algerian people.

Brother Paul Joyous, affable, ready to help and with golden hands, Brother Paul was loved by everyone, by his neighbours, by the country folk associated with the work of the monks. He did not know Arabic but he managed to make himself understood with signs and above all with works. A realist, he had no illusions about the political and economic situation of Algeria: he was aware of what could happen at any moment. What a mystery it was that he joined the brothers out of faithfulness to God, to them and to Algeria precisely on the eve of the kidnapping!

The unleashing of violence

The Algerians had obtained their independence at a heavy price in 1962 and had then chosen to follow the path of socialism, but without achieving the hoped-for results. In 1988 the situation of deterioration in which the country found itself had provoked disorders in Algeria and in other cities, fostering the political rise of a strict Islam which offered itself as a solution to all problems: it preached virtue, helped the poor, and declared war on a corrupt West.

The whole of the region of Médéa, where the monastery was located, was a feud of the FIS (the Islamic Salvation Front) which in 1990 had won the elections in most of the communes of Algeria. All the neighbours of the monks, Berber country folk who were very poor and very religious, had voted for them by an overwhelming majority. ‘It is the party of God’, they said.

On 11 January 1992 the army intervened with a coup d’état: it annulled the elections and dissolved the winning party. Armed groups then came into existence: the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS) and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). Civilians were also attacked and it was suggested to foreigners that they should leave the country. Algeria fell into chaos and into civil war – a pitiless struggle to keep or win power.

On Christmas Eve 1993 the brothers of Tibhirine received a “visit” in the monastery from the emir of the GIA, Sayyah Attiya, with a group of another five armed men. They had come to ask for medicines and money and wanted to take Brother Luc, the doctor, with them.

Christian de Chergé, running many risks, opposed these requests. A few days earlier twelve Croats who worked on a building site had been murdered in Tamesguida, a few kilometres from the monastery. The brothers knew them because they used to come to the monastery on feast days. Finally, the emir went away but he promised to come back. The pass word that he laid down to be received with his men was “Monsieur Christian”.

Fr. Christophe left the basement where he had been hiding when he heard the ringing of the bells that announced the Holy Mass of midnight, amazed that the brothers were still alive. The monks went to church to celebrate the night of the Nativity as though it was a new birth for them. For them the question now posed itself of their departure. After a great deal of reflection, they freely decided to stay, at least for the moment: how could they leave their lives, the country, their Muslim neighbours and the Church of Algeria? But around them was unleashed violence and they knew that the possibility of a violent death was not out of the question. Fr. Christian narrated the experience of Christmas Eve in the following way:

After the Christmas visit, I needed fifteen days, three weeks to return from my death. Death – you can be sure – is something you accept very quickly, but then to get back on your feet you need a great deal of time. Afterwards I said to myself: “those people, that man with whom I had such a tense dialogue…what prayer can I say for him? I cannot ask God: kill him. But I can ask: disarm him”. Then I asked myself: “Do I have the right to ask, disarm him, if I do not begin by asking: disarm me and disarm us in the community?” Now this is my prayer which I confide to you in all simplicity. [5]

Brother Luc prayed to the universal Prayer of the Holy Mass ‘Lord, give us the grace to die without hatred in our hearts’.: [6] Brother Michel confided to Fr. Christophe: ‘It is no longer as it once was. Ever since ‘they’ came, I have had no strength’. [7]

An unpublished work by Fr. Christian

Fr. Christian had begun the composition of his will before the massacre of the Croats and he had finished it before the Christmas visit of the mujahidin: it is an admirable text, very well known, which will remain as a masterpiece of contemporary religious literature.

But the will was accompanied by a note, which has not hitherto been published, to Christophe who was the second Superior of the community: “For Brother Christophe, if it should happen that…”. The emir Sayyah Attiya had left behind him as a password “Monsieur Christian” and Christian, as a the Superior, thought that he was the only target of the Islamists. In this note, which is extremely important and moving, he at first gave some telephone numbers of people who should be informed (the prefect, the gendarmes, the bishop), if it should happen that…and then wrote:

Measures should be taken for an immediate evacuation, unless something else should be done, and for the surveillance of the places that are abandoned. The data on the brothers, and on me as well, are to be found in the document holder. I think with love of the future of Mohamed, of his family, of our Ali and of the country folk who work in association with us. If I meet a brutal death, I would like to remain amongst them, buried in the atrium, on the opposite side of the foundation cross, of the grave of our Father Aubin. My mother should feel sweetness towards me. To everyone and to each one I ask mercy and the alms of a remembrance in the Eucharist. May God continue the work that has been begun here! I thank him for having allowed me, I believe, to consent to the GIFT for EVERYONE. Through you. I embrace everyone, THANK YOU for so much trust.: [8]

War correspondence

The spread of hatred, of fear and of madness grew and cost the lives of about 200,000 people, amongst whom also Christian men and women religious. At the end of August 1996 nineteen religious were killed during the civil war, amongst whom – the last – the Bishop of Oran, Pierre Claverie.

The correspondence of Brother Luc, more than so many other words, allows us to see the climate of those tragic years and the journey of self-giving that he had arrived at.

Here the situation has become disquieting and perhaps in the future it will be dangerous…Death…would be witness rendered to the absolute of God. I am like an old overcoat, consumed, with holes, with patches, but inside my soul still sings. In a little while it will be Christmas. A liberator was born for us. Since 1 December an ultimatum of the GIA has been addressed to all foreigners to leave the country (17 December 1993).

Here our situation is troubling and dangerous. We live in a climate of violence. We are isolated, we are alone, but the Lord is with us. Despite the difficult situation we persist in remaining in Faith and Charity. What can happen to us? To go to see God and be flooded with His tenderness. The Lord is the great merciful one and the great forgiver (9 January 1994).

When you read this letter, Lent will be about to finish and the light of Easter will begin to shine forth. Every year, with emotion and wonder, I see the first almond trees in blossom. Spring, for man, for a Christian, consists of offering his life to God, an offering that one should renew every day during the course of the years. But at the end of the road there is Easter with its Light and its Joy. Here the violence continues (6 March 1994).

Thank you for following us in your thoughts amidst the events of Algeria. A man religious and a woman religious have been murdered. There is no truce as regards the violence. Here we are seven men religious and we go on. We are like a bird on a branch, ready to fly towards the sky! A new heaven and a new earth. Wherever we go, wherever we are, God accompanies us. God is not against us, but with us. When we disembark from this planet, still immerged all of us in our earthly worries, we will not be afraid because in crossing the anxiety-inducing threshold of death we will find Christ who will take us into the house of the Father (25 May 1994).

Recently I was reflecting on that thought of Pascal: ‘Men never do evil so completely and so joyously as when they do it for religious reasons’ (June 1994).

Here it is very hot and in addition a fire has been started on the mountains in front of the monastery. The violence persists and becomes worse. On 11 July there were twelve deaths in Algiers. I do not think that a dialogue is possible. It is a trial of strength. And we always stay in Tibhirine in an official context. For the moment it is a place of calm and of peace. The future? I am more than eighty years old. Fear is an absence of faith, faith transforms anxiety into trust. So of whom and of what should we be afraid? (12 July 1994).

Jesus is the free man to the utmost, free in everything. To love God in truth is thus to accept, like him, death without reservations. In being an encounter with God, death cannot be the object of terror. Death is God! (28 May 1995).

So I am 82. An old man is only a miserable thing unless his soul sings. Pray for me that the Lord may protect me in joy. Our region is once again immersed in the horrors of violence. God does not want misfortune. He is with the victims. God is with us (13 March 1996).

Here the violence is always at the same level, even though the censorship wants to conceal it. How can we move out of it? I do not think that violence can extirpate violence. We cannot exist as men if we do not agree to be made images of Love, as it is expressed in Christ, the just man who wanted to endure the fate of the unjust (24 March 1996, two days before the kidnapping). [9]

Towards Easter

Each monk for his part and the community as a whole had prepared themselves for the eventuality of a violent death. The pathway had been different for each brother, according to his age, temperament, and the level of human and spiritual maturity he had achieved.

This is what Fr. Jean-Pierre tells us: “What we experienced at Tibhirine, together, was an action of graces. We prepared ourselves together. Out of faithfulness to our vocation we decided to stay here, knowing very well what could happen to us. The Lord invited us and we could have withdrawn, even though around us violent men tried to make us leave, as did official requests. But we had our teacher and we took a pledge in front of him. Secondly, there was our wish to remain faithful to the people around us, not to abandon them: they were threatened as we were, placed between two fires, between the army and the terrorists. The decision not to separate had already been taken in 1993 and even if we had been dispersed by force we found have come together again in Morocco to begin again, settling in another Muslim country”. [10]

Death

What had been long feared, suffered, prepared for and accepted, then took place. On the night of 26-27 March 1996, the seven brothers of Tibhirine were kidnapped. The kidnappers, the senders of whom remain unknown, were looking for seven monks.

In reality, that night, there were nine monks: Bruno, who had arrived from Fes for the election of the prior, and Paul, who had come the previous evening from Savoy after a visit to his family, were the other two. Both were taken.

Two monks escaped capture: Amédée and Jean-Pierre, whom the Providence of God held back in order to give continuity and witness to the love of their brothers. Seventeen years later the mystery has still not been solved: every so often a flash of light, real or only apparent, seems to throw light into the shadows that conceal the crime, leading to useless and suspicious tempests in the mass media. Why were they kidnapped? By whom?Why were they not killed immediately and why were they held hostage for a period of time unknown to us? How, when, why, was it then decided to kill them? What is hidden behind the silence or the lies of the possible murderers?

But their sacrifice was not in vain: they were faithful to God, to the Church of Algeria and to their vow of staying until the end; they chose to remain and to share the fate of a sick and corrupt Algeria, helping the least, the poor and the sick, in the hope of a more limpid and fraternal future; they loved unto the last sign, like Christ, their neighbours, the humble people of the locality, the country folk of Tibhirine, who were in danger, offering them sincere friendship. It was granted to them to bear witness to the absolute of God and to the possibility of loving limitlessly through the supreme, free and total gift of their lives.

[This article is published in Oasis n. 18. Click here to buy a copy of this issue of Oasis and here to subscribe to the journal]

Notes

[1] Quoted in Guido Dotti (ed.) Più forti dell’odio, gli scritti dei monaci trappisti di Tibhirine (Piemme, Casale Monferrato, 1997), pp. 80-81.

[2] Christian de Chergé, Address at the Journées Romaines, September 1989, Bulletin n. 73 (1990/1) of the Pontifical Council for Non-Christians, quoted in Più forti dell’odio, p. 38.

[3] Ibid., pp. 38 ss.

[4] Cf. Jean-Pierre Schumacher, ‘I sette fratelli di Tibhirine’, in Testimoni cistercensi del nostro tempo (Trappiste di Vitorchiano, 2006).

[5]Christian de Chergé, L’invincible espérance(Bayard/Centurion, Paris, 1997), p. 314.

[6] Il soffio del dono, Diario di Fr. Christophe, monaco di Tibhirine (Ed. Messaggero, Padua, 2001), p. 34.

[7] Ibid., p. 49.

[8] Original in the archives of the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Aiguebelle (France).

[9] Luc Dochier, ‘Stralci delle lettere di Fra Luc, monaco trappista di Thibirine’ Rivista Cistercense, 23 (2006), pp. 327-352.

[10] Cf. Jean-Marie Guénois, ‘Jean-Pierre, le dernier moine de Tibhirine témoigne’, Le Figaro Magazine, 04/02/2011.

Lord, Heal our Land

LORD HEAL OUR LAND| Sep 12, 2017 |     

(cf. 2 Chronicles 7:14)

Our brothers and sisters in Christ:

Kian, Carl, Reynaldo…they were young boys, enjoying life, loving sons of parents who doted on them. Now an entire nation knows them by name because their lives have been snuffed out so cruelly, their dreams and aspirations forever consigned to the sad realm of “what could have been but never will be”.

They cannot be statistics, for to reduce them to numbers in an increasing tally is to heap yet more injustice than has already been visited on them. They are only three of so many, awfully many, who have paid the price of what is touted to be the country’s resolute drive against criminality!

We mourn. The nation must beat its breast in a collective admission of guilt for in our silence and in our inaction, in our diffidence and in our hesitation lie our complicity in their deaths!

We are appalled by the remorselessness by which even the young are executed. The relentless and bloody campaign against drugs that shows no sign of abating impels us your bishops to declare:

In the name of God, stop the killings! May the justice of God come upon those responsible for the killings!

For the good of the country, stop the killings! The toll of “murders under investigation” must stop now.

For the sake of the children and the poor, stop their systematic murders and spreading reign of terror! In memory of those killed, let us start the healing of our bleeding nation.

The healing must begin. Malasakit must be restored. Pakikiramay must be active. Pakikipag kapwa tao must be gained back. The rule of law must prevail.

Because we Christians are heralds of a Gospel of Life there is no way that one can be a faithful Christian, let alone a fervent Catholic, and yet stay safely quiet in the face of these shocking attacks against human life. The very Gospel that the Church was founded to teach is a Gospel of Life. The Church must either be at the forefront of the intense and fervent struggle against a culture of death or the Church betrays Christ.

Saint John Paul II taught years many years ago:

Brother kills brother. Like the first fratricide, every murder is a violation of the “spiritual” kinship uniting mankind in one great family, in which all share the same fundamental good: equal personal dignity.…

Cain’s killing of his brother at the very dawn of history is thus a sad witness of how evil spreads with amazing speed: man’s revolt against God in the earthly paradise is followed by the deadly combat of man against man. (EV, 😎

When we label members of our society because of the offenses they commit – or that we impute rightly or wrongly against them – as “unsalvageable”, “irremediable”, “hopelessly perverse” or “irreparably damaged”, then it becomes all the easier for us to consent to their elimination if not to participate outright in their murder. We stand firmly against drugs and the death drugs have caused, but killing is not the solution of the problem.

The mercy of the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine in search of the lost sheep is the only reason why we are still here—awa ng Diyos. The “mandate” to kill the lost sheep is poison for humanity. The wounded need healing, not more blows, and the fallen need our hands to be able to rise again, not our feet to trample on them.

We your bishops call for pakikiramay, pakikipagkapwa-tao and malasakit in action; the action to which we bid you all is utterly Christian. It is the most powerful weapon in our arsenal – the action of prayer.

1. We invite you to offer prayers particularly for those killed in the government’s campaign against drugs, as well as for all victims of violence and the war in Marawi, in our country for a FORTY DAY period, starting SEPTEMBER 23 and ending on NOVEMBER 1. Please offer the rosary daily for the killed and receive Holy Communion as an offering for their souls. May the souls of the killed find rest. Prayer heals us. Prayer helps their souls.

2. Subject to the approval of the diocesan bishops, we appeal for the pealing of church bells at 8:00 pm during the same forty day period in remembrance of the souls of those killed. The ancient pious tradition of De Profundis is worth restoring. Let the bells call us to pray for the dead.

3. One beautiful Filipino custom observed in prayerful remembrance of the dead is the tirik ng kandila sa patay. So we urge our Filipino Catholics, during this same 40 day period, to light candles in front of their homes, in cemeteries, in public places, and particularly, at spots where the victims of the on-going violence have been felled and have lost their lives, while praying for them and for their families. Candle lighting can soothe grieving hearts.

4. Finally, we beg you to contribute to the support and the schooling of the orphaned children of the victims of these murders, or of their siblings, or the support and sustenance of their families. Almsgiving covers many sins. Almsgiving heals.

We intend to offend none but the evil in our midst. We are angry at none but the indifference amongst us. We fight the darkness not with spark of bullets but with the light of Christ. We beg for prayers and we ask for a change of heart in all of us.

Let us turn once more to God, for they who put their trust in bullets and weapons will be confounded. But upon the nation that turns to God and prays, God promises the healing of the land and the calming of the storms that rage in our hearts.

Let the healing begin.

For the Permanent Council of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, Intramuros, Manila, September 12, 2017

(SGD)+ SOCRATES B. VILLEGAS

Archbishop of Lingayen Dagupan

President, Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines

We All Need a Sabbatical…

LOOKING FOR REST AMID THE PRESSURES OF LIFE

Whenever we feel that way, it’s a sure sign that we’ve lost the proper sense of time. Life is meant to be busy, but we’re also meant, at regular times, to have sabbatical, sabbath time, to rest and enjoy.

When we look at scripture we see that God established a certain rhythm to time.

Biblically, this is the pattern: We’re meant to work for six days, then have a one-day sabbatical; work for seven years and have a one year sabbatical; work for seven times seven years (forty-nine years) and have a Jubilee year; and finally work for a lifetime and have an eternity of sabbatical. The idea is that our pressured, hurried, working days should be regularly punctured by times of rest, celebration, enjoyment, non-work, non-pressure, and that ultimately all work will cease and we will have nothing to do except to luxuriate in life itself.

Sabbath is meant to be unordinary time, a time when our normal work and the everyday pressures of life are stopped. Partly this is meant to free us up for deeper things, but mainly it is meant to remind us that we do not live to work, but rather work in order to live and love.

Sabbath is meant to be a time for enjoyment, for high celebration. And this isn’t abstract: On a sabbath we’re meant to eat our best meal of the week, wear our best clothing, rest, enjoy the earth and each other, and (if you’re really an Orthodox believer) to make love.

Sabbath is also meant to be a time for reconciliation, for forgiving debts, for giving up grudges, for making peace with our enemies. The cessation of work, the rest, the celebration, the drinking in of enjoyment, and the making love are all partly ends in themselves.

The sabbath was made for us. However they’re also in function of something else, namely, reconciliation, forgiveness. We only truly celebrate the sabbath, have a genuine holiday, if we forgive someone.
We need sabbath.

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In Safer Hands than Ours…

IN SAFER HANDS THAN OURS

The truth of those words can be particularly consoling when the deceased is a young person, someone whom we feel still needs the hands of an earthly mother and father and whom we would want to trade places with because we feel that he or she is too young to have to leave us and go off in death, alone. That is also true in the case of someone who dies in a far-from-ideal manner, suicide or a senseless accident.

Nothing can be more consoling than to believe that our loved one is now in far safer and gentler hands than our own.

Is this simple wishful thinking, whistling in the dark to keep up our courage? Fudging God’s justice to console ourselves?

Not if Jesus can be believed! Everything that Jesus reveals about God assures us that God’s hands are much gentler and safer than our own.

God is not a God of punishment, but a God of forgiveness. God is not a God who records our sins, but a God who washes them away. God is not a God who demands perfection from us, but a God who asks for a contrite heart when we can’t measure up. God is not a God who gives us only one chance, but a God who gives us infinite chances. God is not a God who waits for us to come to our senses after we have fallen, but a God who comes searching for us, full of understanding and care. God is not a God who is calculating and parsimonious in his gifts, but a prodigal God who sows seeds everywhere without regard for waste or worthiness. God not a God who is powerless before evil and death, but a God who can raise dead bodies to life and redeem what is evil and hopeless. God is not a God who is arbitrary and fickle, but a God who is utterly reliable in his promise and goodness. God is not a God who is dumb and unable to deal with our complexity, but a God who fashioned the depth of the universe and the deepest recesses of the human psyche.

Ultimately, God is not a God who cannot protect us, but is a God in whose hands and in whose promise we are far safer than when we rely upon ourselves.

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Understanding the DAESH System…

UNDERSTANDING THE ISLAMIC STATE’S SYSTEM – STRUCTURE AND WILAYAT
UPDATED MAY 9, 2017 MAY 4, 2015 HELENE LAVOIX 3 COMMENTS

ACTORS MAPPING AND STATE OF PLAY, THE ISLAMIC STATE

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UPDATED: 22 FEBRUARY 2016

Conflicting information regarding the Islamic State and the evolution of the war emerge everyday from the media, while analysts, commentators and official statements are no less swaying. For example, on 13 April 2015, “Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman” stressed that the Islamic State had “ceded 5,000 to 6,000 square miles of territory”, painting a “rosier portrait” as reported by Mitchell Prothero and James Rosen for McClatchy DC (15 April 2015). A mere two days later, the same spokesman was describing battles in Ramadi and Baiji in a sobering way, even though Prothero and Rosen also underline that “U.S. officials have been cautious about overstating Iraqi successes against the Islamic State” (Ibid.) – since then Baiji is again under Iraqi government control, while fighting continues in Ramadi and more generally Anbar, see Rudaw, 22 April 2015; 29 April 2015; 26 April 2015.

As another example, if the Islamic State has lost ground and the city of Tikrit and if the situation in Anbar remains contested (e.g. Bill Roggio & Caleb Weiss, The Long War Journal, 26 April 2015), on the other hand, a first psyops video from Yemen, “Soldiers of the Caliphate in the Land of Yemen – Wilāyat Ṣana’ā’” was also “Soldiers of the Caliphate in the Land of Yemen – Wilāyat Ṣana’ā’”, Yemen, Islamic State, ISIS, ISpublished on 24 April 2015 (see Jihadology.net*), after the 20 March 2015 first statement “Adopting the Martyrdom Operations Against the Dens of the Ḥūthīs – Wilāyat Ṣana’ā’” (Jihadology.net). This could signal the start of real activities there. Indeed, Yemen was declared a Wilayat in November 2014 (Aaron Zelin, “The Islamic State’s model“, The Washington Post, 28 January 2015, Ludovico Carlino, IHS Jane’s, 25 March 2015), but, according to Zelin (Ibid.), hardly activity had been seen by the end of January. We would thus have both attrition and expansion.

Psyops and propaganda, the fog of war, as well as the difficulty to obtain reliable information on the Islamic State, all interacting, contribute to this complicated situation.

The scope, intensity and evolution of the threat constituted by the Islamic State, its Khilafah and the worldview and system they seek to establish (see the Psyops series), as well as the length of the war and the prospects for its fate, fundamentally depend upon the Islamic State’s ability to be successful in meeting aims located along three interacting dimensions: Wilayat Sanaa, Yemen, Islamic State, IS, ISISconsolidating and developing the Islamic State and its Khilafah as a polity in all its facets, asserting supremacy over actual or potential competing groups and fighting victoriously against attacking foes (see H. Lavoix, “The Islamic State Psyops – Worlds War”, The Red Team Analysis Society, 16 January 2015). As a result, defeating the Islamic State implies attacking along these three dimensions, permanently hindering each aim.

Previously, we focused on the Islamic State’s psyops as a way to understand better its belief-system, way of thinking, worldview and objectives. We notably underlined that its current and potential influence, as well as the related power of its approach, are grounded in its ability to promote a specific coherent ideology anchored in a real material territorial state-like power, thus synthesising idealism and materialism (see for the detail H. Lavoix, “Worlds War“, Ibid.). Now, we shall address the material or concrete side of the Islamic State, although not forgetting the socio-ideological model which is at its foundation, focusing on the Islamic State’s ability to indeed create a real polity. We shall seek to improve our understanding of the type of polity, with its specificities, that is being formed. Our ultimate aim is to be able to contribute to a foresight assessment of the sustainability of the Islamic State, in other words to answer to questions such as: Is the Islamic State about to collapse? Is it reinforcing? Will it last one, two, or ten years?

We shall here focus on the overall structure of the Islamic State and its Khilafah and identify a meaningful unit of analysis, with specificities that can then be monitored to foresee and warn about the overall developments of the Islamic State.

[Check also the 22 February 2016 detailed analysis for the Islamic State structure and wilayat in Yemen using the framework explained here: “Understanding the Islamic State’s System – Wilayat and Wali in Yemen“]

Internal governance and external wilayat?

The first difficulty when describing a polity is not to introduce unwillingly biases, notably by projecting unconscious models we may have of the way a political entity functions onto another. Keeping in mind the diversity of political organisations over time and space, from, for example, the southeast Asian pre-modern “galactic polity” system (Tambiah, 1976) to the modern nation-state through the European feudal system, on the one hand, and the originality of the Islamic State system merging Salafism thus old Islamic texts with materialism and use of twenty-first century techniques and approach, it is most probable that we shall often or to the least sometimes be faced with political units and dynamics that will not correspond to our usual, implicit, modern-state model. We are likely to also find hybrid, novel, or different political practices and organisations.

The first differentiation that most analysts of the Islamic State’s organisation, relying on scant sources, seem to make is to distinguish between “external and internal governance”, thus reproducing more or less the usual differentiation between domestic political organisation (the state and its administrative divisions) wilayat, Iraq, Islamic State, governance, war, Is, ISISand external one (from client states, to allies through colonies). We thus find studies of what seems to be conceptualised as focusing on the “Islamic State proper” – i.e. what territory has been captured in Syria and Iraq and is ruled, apparently directly – on the one hand and, on the other, analyses of areas which are declared by the Islamic State as wilayat, often following a pledge of allegiance done by a group that is a would-be state actor and its acceptance by the Khalif.

The first case is exemplified by Barrett’s The Islamic State (The Soufan Group, November 2014). The author relies mainly, for the part regarding leadership and “governance structure”, on an analysis published by The Telegraph (Ruth Sherlock, 9 Jul 2014; see for a use of apparently the same source, CNN and TRAC, 14 January 2015), using “information, which was found on memory sticks taken from the home of Abu Abdul Rahman al-Bilawi, al-Baghdadi’s military chief of staff for Iraqi territory” to which the analyst Hashimi al Hashimi “had access”.

According to Hashimi, Sherlock, and Barrett, we thus have a highly centralised structure (Barrett: 28) headed by the Khalifah (Caliph, the person who is the stewart for the Khilafah, the political organisation), advised and legitimated (knowing that legitimacy may also be questioned) by two councils, the Shura council and the Sharia council, seconded by two deputies, one being responsible for Iraq and the other for Syria, then by various councils (we shall come back to this more in detail with the next post, see “Understanding the Islamic State’s System – The Calif and Legitimacy“). The Islamic State was then divided into 18 wilayat, eight in Iraq, nine in Syria and one, Wilayat Al-Furat, on the border between Syria and Iraq (Ibid.: 33). Still using this approach, but updating it, by March 2015, according to Dabiq #8 (p.27) we have 20 wilayat: ten in Iraq, nine in Syria and Al-Furat.

Islamic State, wilayat, Iraq, Syria, war

The Islamic State wilayat in Mesopotamia by H Lavoix, Red (Team) Analysis – background map: Military situation as of 28 April 2015 by Haghal Jagul – Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – Click to access larger image

A wilayat is translated variously according to dictionaries. For Lewis (The Political Language of Islam, 1988: 123), it means governorship or province. As these terms may have different political meanings, it is better to keep initially the original meaning and then to explain it through the Islamic State system itself. We shall thus use Lewis explanation according to which the “vali and vilayat are the Turkish pronunciation of the active participle and verbal noun of the Arabic root w-l-y, ‘to be near’ and hence ‘to take charge of’ (Ibid.). By extension wilayat will be “what is taken charge of”, “what is ruled”.

In the second case, we have analyses focusing rather on external wilayat, such as Aaron Zelin’s (ibid., see also a monthly power ranking AQ vs IS and the categories used), actually aiming first at comparing and contrasting the Islamic State wilayat system and Al-Qaeda franchises.

Khorasan sc
Official presentation for the 28 April Video “Targeting apostasy Pakistani army mortar in the Khyber region” Wilayat Khorasan

wilayat Khorasan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Islamic State, ISIS, IS

Here, we thus have, connected to the Islamic State, “Algeria (Wilayat al-Jazair), Libya (Wilayat al-Barqah, Wilayat al-Tarabulus and Wilayat al-Fizan), Sinai (Wilayat Sinai), Saudi Arabia (Wilayat al-Haramayn) and Yemen (Wilayat al-Yaman)”, to which must be added Wilayat Khorasan, i.e. Pakistan and Afghanistan (Ibid.). More recently, Boko Haram would have been renamed the Islamic State’s West Africa province or ISWAP (Adam Whitnall, The Independent, 26 April 2015), which would have become Wilāyat Gharb Ifrīqīyyah (see Jihadology.net, 31 March 2015).

According to Zelin, “it [The Islamic State] has had a relatively clear agenda and model: fighting locally, instituting limited governance and conducting outreach.” Zelin, however, emphasises that Libya and Sinai are “following the same methodology on the ground and in the media as the Islamic State’s wilayat have in Iraq and Syria” and that “its [The Islamic State] media apparatus took over the media departments of all the local wilayat outside of Mesopotamia”. He lybian arena scthen points out that Libya – as is clear also from the attention given to it in Dabiq, see #5, #6, #7, #8 – has “the most potential to replicate the Islamic State’s model in Mesopotamia if things go right for it,” with three wilayat having been created. Zelin then further underlines similarities that are developed in the governance of these wilayat, while pledges are demanded to be made to the Caliph. As a result, the author brings these wilayat further away from an implicit initial categorisation (external versus internal), on the contrary showing that they are progressively dragged closer to the center. The search for a new framework for analysis may be signaled here by the use of the term Mesopotamia, to break away analytically from the existing international order.

If the approach of separating external wilayat from internal ones is convenient, easy to understand and clear, we may also wonder if it is not potentially unwillingly misleading because failing to fully represent reality. Indeed, if we had two such categories, then why would the Islamic State use the same label for both, i.e. wilayat. Furthermore, if we consider the relatively a-local and a-geographical idea that is included in the notion of ribat, which led us to revise our understanding of what is foreign and what is domestic, from the point of view of the Islamic State (H. Lavoix “Ultimate War“), as well as the aim to establish a Khilafah, thus a unique entity over the whole world, then are we sure we can truly fully categorize differently wilayat located within the Islamic State and those “outside” it?

On the other hand, the Islamic State and its leaders have shown their pragmatism, which was emphasised again by Der Spiegel’s Christoph Reuter “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State” (18 April 2015). In this thorough analysis of documents originating from Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi aka Haji Bakr, former colonel in the intelligence service of Saddam Hussein’s air defense force, and mastermind behind the Islamic State’s “subjugation” of part of Syria, Reuter explains the dynamics of infiltration and domination used by the Islamic State leadership, as well as the security apparatus of the wilayat al khayr prier scIslamic State. Among others, this underlines that the initial step towards expansion, for the Islamic State, is not only military but also, and maybe foremost, religious. This aspect of underground taking over was also confirmed as far as the city of Mosul is concerned by Al-Tamimi analysis (“Aspects of Islamic State (IS) Administration in Ninawa Province: Part III“, January 23, 2015).

Considering the Islamic State leadership’s pragmatism, it is most likely that real distance from the Khilafah’s center, as well as the position of an external group within the dynamics of revolt against the existing order play a role in the type of organisation and relation to the center for each wilayat. This is what can be deduced from Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi fascinating analysis “The Islamic State and its ‘Sinai Province’” (26 March 2015) to which we shall now turn as he gives us the key to a most probably more adequate understanding of the Islamic State system, as already implicitly present in Zelin’s work.

A global wilayat system articulated around administrative and military strength?

Comparing three pledges of allegiance and the response to them made by the Islamic State, Al-Tamimi explains in each case the answer, and how it is translated in administrative and political terms. If we generalise Al-Tamimi’s understanding, which is also congruent with what Zelin explains, it would come that, in the case of further away (in all understandings of the word) and relatively weak groups considering the area where they operated, such as “Indian jihadi group Tanẓim Ansar al-Tawheed” (pledge made in May 2014), there is no official answer from the Islamic State. The group is thus merely used “for propaganda work” (Ibid.).

Actually, and this point does not question Al-Tamimi reasoning and explanation, if we follow the explanation by the Islamic State as given in Dabiq #5: 24, acceptation of pledges would have been done for all groups (Dabiq‘s list, unfortunately, is generic, ending a list of groups by “and elsewhere”), but declarations of wilayat would be delayed. Only how this delay will end is then explained: case 1 – “appointment or recognition of leadership by the Khalifah for those lands where multiple groups have given bay’at and merged” and case 2 – “establishment of a direct line of communication between the Khilafah and the mujahid leadership of lands who have yet to contact the Islamic State and thus receive information and directives from the Khalifah” (Ibid.).

Then, for groups such as the Gaza-Sinai Jamaʿat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (pledge: November 2014), the Islamic State’s official answer is translated as the creation of a new wilayat, here Wilayat Sinai (now Wilāyat Saynā’, according to various psyops products – updated 16 Feb 2016). Thus, these groups are estimated by the Islamic State’s leadership, according to Al-Tamimi, as being able to “give the IS brand a viable military presence and ultimately a state-like representation in the area in question” with a strong media arm. They are thus transformed into wali as the territory where they operate and ultimately more or less rule becomes a wilayat. The extent to which they will be or remain wali remain to be explored. However, if we refer to Dabiq’s explanation, the wali is specifically considered as “appointed by us [the Islamic State] for it [the declared wilayat]” (Dabiq #5: 25). This, thus, further supports Al-Tamimi thesis according to which the Islamic State must be sure enough of the strength of the main group when declaring a wilayat.

For these specific cases of wilayat, Al-Tamimi also points out that there are not yet there any “significative Islamic State administrative division” or even “proto-state bodies”; what can be found, besides military operations and media is only “‘proto-Hisbah’ (Shariʾa law enforcement)” (Ibid.). Note, as detailed by Al-Tamimi in the case of Sinai, that the challenge for each wilayat, notably at this turning point or early stage, is similar to the triple aim that exists at the larger Islamic State level, and involves notably leading other groups, tribes and factions to pledge allegiance to the Khalif as well as uniting these actors.

Finally, the third case identified by Al-Tamimi is represented by Wilayat al-Barqah (centered around Derna in Libya), where “Islamic State state-like institutions” have been set up, such as “a Diwan al-Hisbah (enforcing Islamic morality), a Diwan al-Taʾaleem (education) and a Diwan al-Awqaf wa al-Masajid (religious outreach and control of mosques),” while military control appears stronger (Ibid.)

To understand at best the Islamic State polity it would thus make sense to take the wilayat as main unit of analysis and then to consider as main characteristics not its geographical location compared with Iraq and Syria, but the degree of Islamic State-like administrative and military control over the population and the territory, while media control would start being implemented as soon as possible, even for the least advanced groups. A tentative map using this system is presented below. Dynamically, it is also interesting to point out that we move from a group and its pledge to a territory with its administrative system, which is, ironically, not without presenting similarities with the move from ruling over followers as in pre-modern systems to the territorially bounded state as in the modern state one. This similarity should, however, not be overstated considering the most probably crucial role of religion, as we shall see more in detail in forthcoming posts.

Islamic State wilayat, IS, ISIS

The wilayat of the Islamic State – 29 April 2015, by H Lavoix for Red (Team) Analysis. In white surrounded by black the most inactive wilayat. In grey those wilayat where fighting is preeminent and only extremely sparse administrative/Sharia’h activity takes place. In black the most administratively advanced wilayat. The classification for Mesopotamia is tentative. Add to the map, wilayat Qawqaz (Caucasus), created on 23 June 2015 on part of the Russian Federation territory (ref: Harleen Gambhir, “ISIS Declares Governorate in Russia’s North Caucasus Region“, ISW, 23 June 2015) – Click to access large image.

Would this approach be also coherent for wilayat that are located within Syria and Iraq? If we turn to Caris and Reynolds who analysed ISIS governance in Syria (ISW, July 2014), they also emphasise the dynamics of first establishing military control then moving to political control through the establishment of governance and state structure, articulated around “administration and Muslim services” (Ibid: 14). Comparing Wilayat al-Khayr (Deir ez-Zour, where military operations are still ongoing, e.g. Ara News, 28 March 2015) to Wilayat al-Raqqa (where the Islamic State’s is seen as strongest and most established), dewan of health al Raqqa scthey further specifically underline that the level of sophistication of governance and services implemented is proportional to the degree of military control, as identified by Al-Tamimi in the cases of Wilayat Barqa and Wilayat Sinai. Thus the model outlined would also fit wilayat located within Iraq and Syria.

We should underline, however, that some wilayat, notably in Syria (namely wilayat al-Lādhiqīyah and wilayat Idlib), do not present any activity since the Islamic State withdrew in March 2014 (Caris and Reynolds, Ibid: 8, 13), but remain, nevertheless, wilayat, probably in prevision of potential future operations. This stresses first the importance of considering the fluidity of war and second the need to apply this framework, as all models, more as guideline than as rules set in stone.

Although we would ideally need a detailed assessment of each wilayat, furthermore monitored over time to fully confirm the validity of our wilayat-based model, as such it is most likely to be sufficiently representative of the reality of the Islamic State to be used as ideal-type framework for understanding how the Islamic State polity functions and to assess the odds of its survival and expansion or, on the contrary decay and disappearance.

With the next posts, we shall further detail the political dynamics, processes and structures of the wilayat system within the Islamic State.

Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the Director of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues.
——-

* A special thanks should be given by all researchers and analysts of the Islamic State to Aaron Zelin for maintaining Jihadology.net, as this allows us all to access Jihadis videos and documents, not only in a single place but also easily, as increasingly access to Islamic State documents seems to be forbidden from some countries.

Similarly the translation work and primary research done by Aymenn Al-Tamimi are immensely useful.
Of course, these thanks do not diminish in any way the interest of both scholars’ analyses.
——-

Bibliography

Al-Tamimi, Aymenn Jawad, “Aspects of Islamic State (IS) Administration in Ninawa Province: Part III”, Iraq Insurgent Profiles (aymennjawad.org), January 23, 2015.

Al-Tamimi, Aymenn Jawad, “The Islamic State and its ‘Sinai Province’”,Tel Aviv Notes: Moshe Dayan Center, 26 March 2015.

Barrett, Richard, The Islamic State, The Soufan Group, November 2014.

Caris, Charles C., & Samuel Reynolds, ISIS governance in Syria, ISW, July 2014.

Lavoix, Helene, “The Islamic State’s Psyops – Ultimate War”, Red (Team) Analysis, 9 February 2015.

Lavoix, Helene, “The Islamic State Psyops – Worlds War”, Red (Team) Analysis, 19 January 2015.

Lewis, Bernard, The Political Language of Islam, The University of Chicago Press, 1988, no. 22, p. 123.

Reuter, Christoph, “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State”, Der Spiegel, 18 April 2015.

Roggio, Bill, & Caleb Weiss, “Islamic State captures dam, overruns base in western Iraq”, The Long War Journal, 26 April 2015.

Sherlock, Ruth, “Inside the leadership of Islamic State: how the new ‘caliphate’ is run”, The Telegraph, 9 Jul 2014.

Tambiah, Stanley, World Conqueror and World Renouncer: a Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976).

Zelin, Aaron, “The Islamic State’s model”, The Washington Post, 28 January 2015.
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