In this moving book, McGee describes the lives and deaths of 19 clergy and religious caught up in the bloody Algerian conflict in the years from 1994-1996. The book itself begins rather slowly, as a travelogue which narrates the development of McGee’s own understanding of the Algerian situation and of what it meant for these Christians to remain in Algeria, despite death threats from the GIA, an Islamic militant movement which had promised to kill all foreigners. The stories of some of these “martyrs” have already been told – in particular, that of the 7 Benedictine monks of Tibhirine, kidnapped and killed in 1996. Their deaths were widely reported in the international press and their story has been told in journalistic detail by John Kiser in The Monks of Tibhirine. Rather than reproduce Kiser’s work, though, McGee’s book provides a more concise, helpful account, with a clearer focus on the theological and spiritual significance of these stories. A foreword from Michael Fitzgerald, formerly President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and now papal nuncio to Egypt, and an introduction from Archbishop Henri Teissier both draw the reader’s attention to the significance of the experience of Christians in Algeria for Muslim-Christian relations around the world.
The remnant of an Algerian Church once deeply tied to colonial power, the Christians profiled here were living out what McGee explains as a new, more “evangelical” identity focused on a life of service and love to the Algerian people (rather than chaplaincy to resident Europeans). Guided by the theology of Msgr. Teissier – whose life and thought is clearly the animating force behind this book as well – their vocation was to be Christians among Muslims, a “sacrament of encounter,” without seeking to convert their Muslim neighbors. (It is no coincidence that the book concludes with an interview with Teissier and then has appendices which include several of Teissier’s addresses.) McGee suggests that here lies an important lesson for other Christians: these Algerian Christians have learned to be “powerless and at the service of a Muslim people, whereas the Christian Churches in the West still occupy a position of power and dominance in relation to the Muslim minorities in their midst” (p. 138).
This focus on the spirituality of the martyrs is, in many ways, the book’s key characteristic and most important contribution. Though McGee is certainly theologically astute, this is not a work of significant theological depth as much as a pastoral call to love our Muslim neighbors. And is this not what today’s Muslim-Christian dialogue needs the most? Rather than justify Muslim-Christian dialogue theologically or examine doctrinal questions, McGee here is making a real contribution to the development of a spirituality of interreligious dialogue. Such a spirituality must, it seems, include a new understanding of martyrdom – because McGee’s use of the word here is certainly surprising in some ways. From the perspective of their murderers, these victims were targeted merely because they were foreigners, not because they were Christians. And some recently uncovered evidence suggests that the monks of Tibhirine, at least, were killed not by Islamic militants but unintentionally by the Algerian government, in a bombing of a GIA camp. While this does not detract from the saintliness of the victims, it begs the question: what is it that makes a martyr – the motive of the killer or the vocation of the victim? Clearly McGee believes that the desire of these men and women to simply love and serve their Muslim neighbors, even at the cost of their lives, is a true testimony to the Christian faith – and he does a good job of convincing his readers of this as well.