A cardinal dispatched by the Vatican to Algeria has held an unusual beatification ceremony for 19 monks, nuns and other Roman Catholics who were killed during Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s.
The ceremony, on Saturday in the western city of Oran, was the first in the Muslim world, according to Algeria’s religious affairs minister.
It came after Pope Francis recognized all 19 as martyrs in January, paving the way for the ceremony. Beatification is a step in the process of being declared a saint.
The cardinal, Angelo Becciu, who is prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, celebrated Mass at the Notre Dame de Santa Cruz basilica as the pope’s special envoy.
Those honored included seven French Trappist monks who were abducted from the monastery of Tibhirine, south of Algiers, in 1996. Soon afterward, their skulls were discovered nearby, but their bodies were never found.
A radical group was blamed for their beheadings, but some observers have suggested that Algeria’s military was responsible.
The Algerian president agreed to allow and co-organize the beatification events, despite some lingering tensions over the deaths. The country’s religious affairs minister attended the event, as did ambassadors from several countries and other foreign dignitaries.
A moment of silence was held for all the victims of what Algerians call the “black decade,” when some 250,000 people were killed as the army fought an Islamist insurgency between 1991 and 2002. The ceremony also honored 99 imams killed in the fighting.
The bishop of Oran, Jean-Pierre Vesco, took a moment to honor the Algerian driver of a bishop who was killed in Oran in the 1990s.
Francis invited a crowd of about 30,000 faithful in St. Peter’s Square on Saturday to give a round of applause to the newly beatified in Algeria.
“These martyrs of our times were faithful announcers of the Gospel, humble builders of peace and heroic witnesses to Christian charity,” the pope said. He added that their “courageous witness is a source of hope for the Algerian Catholic community and a seed of dialogue for the entire society.”
Francis added his hope that the beatifications would be “a stimulus to build together a world of brotherhood and solidarity.”
The five other religious men and six women killed, including citizens of France, Spain, Belgium and one born in Tunis, were gunned down in 1994 and 1995, according to France 24.
The tragedy inspired a 2010 film, “Des Hommes et des Dieux” (“Of Gods and Men”), starring Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale, which won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.