Today, nineteen martyrs of the faith will be beatified in Algeria. It’s a varied group of priests, religious sisters and a bishop and their martyrdom is not an ancient event. Rather, they were killed for being Christians in living memory, in te last decade of the 20th century.
In his Advent letter, Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp presents us one of the soon-to-be Blesseds. Belgian-born White Father Charles Deckers. He, the bishop says, provides a modern face to Advent, a time of hope and expectation. These are what motivated Fr. Charles and the other martyrs in life, and these still remain.
“What are we waiting for? A justifiable question. Every year it is Advent. Every year we dream about peace and reconciliation. Every years we read pages full of hope and expectation in the Prophets. Every year we construct a nativity scene with a child in the manger. Not once do we feel that those expectations are unnecessary or outdated. On the contrary, year after year current events bring new disappointments or challenges. Our greatest expectations still remain hidden as seeds in the earth, waiting for a better season.
In the middle of Advent, on 8 December, the Antwerp-born White Father Charles Deckers will be beatified in Oran, Algeria, together with eighteen other martyrs. This group of Algerian martyrs also includes a bishop, six sisters, three other White Father and seven Trappists. We know the latter from the movie Des Hommes et de Dieux.
Charles Deckers was born in Antwerp on 26 December 1924. He follows his secondary education at the college of Our Lady. During the Second World War the Jesuits implore their students to aid the needy inhabitants of the city. It marks Charles Deckers for life. After his secondary education he decides to become a missionary in Africa. He ends up in Algeria, then still a French colony. He studies Islam and learns both Arabic and Berber. In Tizi Ouzou, where he lives and works for the longest time, he has a special eye for the young. He establish a technical school where young people can learn a profession. During the Algerian War (1954-1962) he does everything to prevent young people from joining extremist or violent groups. Because the civil authorities do no appreciate his impact on Algeria’s youth, he is forced to leave the country in 1977.
He remains abroad for ten years: five years in Brussels and five years in Yemen. In Brussels he takes part in the establishment of El Kalima, a centre of encounter and dialogue between Christians and Muslims. He is finally able to return to Algeria in 1987. As priest he is attached to the Basilica of Notre-Dame d’Afrique in the capital Algiers. Again, he works for encounter and dialogue, especially among the young. And again, he establishes a polytechnic.
After 1990, political tensions in Algeria steadily increase. Fundamentalist Muslim groups commit deathly attacks against anyone working for peace and reconciliation in the country. Violence against Christians also increases. Despite the threats, most priests and religious decide to remain in the country. Charles Deckers also wants to stay, out of solidarity with the persecuted Christians and his threatened Muslim friends. It is a conscious decision, supported by a deep spirituality. On 26 December 1994 he celebrates his 70th birthday in Algiers. Days later he leaves for Tizi Ouzou, to visit his brother priests. Less than half an hour after his arrival a group of armed commandos break into the building and kill the four White Fathers present, among them Charles Deckers.
Expectation is not giving in to despair or bitterness. It is continued hope for what seems impossible.
After all, humanity’s most beautiful expectations are still hidden like seeds in the earth, waiting for better seasons. When will that hidden seed be able to sprout, grow and flower? It is an open question.
This year, the martyrs of Algeria provide a modern face to Advent.
Their hope and expectations have not vanished. They lie in the earth – also among us – waiting for better times. Advent’s question is not when God will come, but when man will receive Him. It is harder to wait for man that it is to wait for God.”