Middle (Morocco) (AFP) – Behind an imposing wall topped with two mud towers, the bells of the only Cistercian monastery in the Maghreb resonate in the Moroccan Atlas.
This place is witness to the cohabitation between Christians and Muslims, but it also embodies the memory of the Tibhirine massacre, in Algeria. The last surviving monk of the 1996 drama peacefully passed away on Sunday at the age of 97.
Perched on a hill on the edge of the town of Midelt with the snow-capped crown of Mount Ayachi as a backdrop over 3,750 meters, the Priory of Our Lady of the Atlas is located in a remote and poor rural region, mostly berberophone.
Here the small church, the two chapels and the living space of the four monks were built with respect for the local architecture, simple, in raw earth and with wooden roofs.
Furniture carved from Atlas trees and traditional carpets, stamped “Church of Midelt”, are made in neighboring villages.
“This place is in the image of its environment. The same goes for our relations with our neighbors. I find it important to have a relation with the Other without worrying about his religion, his identity, his culture”, entrusts to AFP the Spanish brother José Luis, walking in the courtyard of the monastery.
The latter was erected in the 1920s by Franciscan sisters before Cistercians-Trappists joined them in 2000, including the only two survivors of Tibhirine, Jean-Pierre Schumacher and Amédée Noto.
“I grew up working with the sisters and then the monks. For a long time very strong links have united us. I have never perceived any difference between us”, says Ismaïl, 48, who sometimes acts as a driver for the monks and to their guests.
The rule would like that the Trappists live in autarky and in seclusion but in Notre-Dame of the Atlas, the borders with the outside world remain porous.
“The complicity between Christians and Muslims in the region has always been present and will remain so forever,” assures Hayat, a young thirty-something from the village of Otmane Ou Moussa.
Witness the fifteen villagers who attended the funeral of Jean-Pierre Schumacher on Tuesday, who now rests in the cemetery surrounded by cypresses of the monastery. Amédée Noto died in France in 2008.
One night in March 1996, seven of their companions were kidnapped at Notre-Dame de l’Atlas in Tibhirine, in the midst of civil war in Algeria, before being assassinated and beheaded in unclear circumstances.
The killing had been claimed by Islamists from the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) but suspicions about a possible involvement of the Algerian military secret services remain.
The day after the massacre, the two Trappists first joined a monastery in Fez, the spiritual capital of Morocco, before settling in Midelt, where Our Lady of the Atlas of Tibhirine was transferred.
The memory of the murdered monks is very vivid and a memorial is dedicated to them in the heart of the priory: “It was important to perpetuate their memory in this haven of peace”, recalls Cardinal Cristóbal López, who came to celebrate the funeral of Jean-Pierre Schumacher .
The professional vows of the seven Cistercians, their portraits, bures, press clippings, a telephone and seals in use in Tibhirine are exhibited in this intimate space built in 2019.
At Notre-Dame de l’Atlas, the life of the monks is punctuated by services but also by the pleasure of welcoming travelers in search of appeasement.
The monastery hotel can accommodate around twenty pilgrims, often from Europe or the United States.
“On several occasions our guests come with preconceived ideas about the local population. At the end of their stay, they change their minds”, rejoices the hotelier monk José Luis. “Because between neighbors, there are no barriers!”.
And if the Trappists are famous for making beers, as in Belgium, in Midelt they prefer “organic” apple juice from the beautiful orchard of the monastery.
© 2021 AFP