The mystery of the martyred monks: Who beheaded them, and why?
It's been 22 years since their heads were found. The clues point to events much more sinister than the official version
Nineteen Catholics murdered in Algeria in the 1990s are going to be beatified on Saturday, and among them are seven French monks who were killed in murky circumstances with damning claims years afterwards, casting doubt on the official version.
Only the heads of the men, aged between 45 and 82, were ever found after their kidnapping, which came as Algeria was deep in the 1991-2002 civil war between government forces and Islamists that left up to 200,000 people dead.
The tragedy inspired 2010 French film Des Hommes et des Dieux (Of Gods and Men), which won the Cannes film festival’s Grand Prix that year.
Here is an overview of the mystery of the murdered monks of Tibhirine.
Kidnapped from a monastery
The Trappist monks lived at the Notre Dame de l’Atlas monastery in Tibhirine, about 80km southwest of Algiers, outside the town of Medea.
On the night of March 26 to 27 1996, a group of gunmen stormed the monastery and kidnapped the seven Frenchmen.
A month later the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA), one of the main insurgent groups at war with the secular government, claimed responsibility.
GIA chief Djamel Zitouni said they could be exchanged for jailed insurgents.
But on May 23 the GIA announced it had slit the monks’ throats two days earlier, blaming the French government’s refusal to negotiate.
The Algerian army said it found their heads on May 30 on a road near Medea. The bodies were never seen again.
The Algerian government maintained that the massacre was another Islamist crime.
However, doubts were raised after allegations that the army itself may have been responsible, either through a blunder or to discredit the Islamists.
In July 2002 a former Algerian soldier, Abderrahmane Chouchane, said Zitouni had also been a military agent while running the GIA.
Then in December 2002 a former member of Algerian secret services, Abdelkader Tigha, claimed in the French daily Liberation that the military had ordered the abductions using the services of Zitouni’s group.
“Annoyed by the obstinate presence of the Trappist monks in a strategic area ... and anxious to secure France’s support for its antiterrorist campaign,” the military decided to kidnap them, Tigha alleged from prison.
In 2004, Paris prosecutors opened a formal inquiry.
French general Francois Buchwalter, the military attache to Algiers in 1996, told the investigation in 2009 that he had learned the Algerian military killed the men in error.
Buchwalter said an Algerian soldier whose brother took part had told him that military helicopters had opened fire on a militant camp, realising afterwards they had also killed the monks.
The general said the monks’ heads were removed afterwards to make it look like the work of jihadist rebels. He accused the French authorities of abetting a coverup.
In 2014, three years after a formal request, Algeria agreed the skulls, buried at the monastery, could be exhumed for examination in the presence of French magistrates and experts.
It, however, blocked the French team from taking the samples back to Paris.
In 2015 the investigators released a report that heaped doubts on the official version by concluding the monks were likely to have been killed several weeks before the date claimed by the GIA.
They said the skulls did not show bullet wounds, which would also undermine the claim of an army error, but without the bodies it was hard to make any conclusions on how the men died.
Investigators were finally in 2016 able to take samples from the remains to France.
Another report released in 2018 made similar conclusions, but added that all the skulls showed signs of a “postmortem decapitation”, feeding suspicions their beheading may have been staged.
In January 2018 the Vatican declared the monks were martyrs for their faith, along with the 12 other slain clergy, including the bishop of Oran, Pierre Claverie, killed in a bombing in 1996.
They had been murdered “in odium fidei”, or out of hatred for the faith, it said, opening the way for their beatification – the first step on the path to Roman Catholic sainthood.