Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Father Christmas

Christmas Eve, 1993

It was 7.15 in the evening. Michel had just rung the Angelus the third time, following a late Vespers. Compline would be dropped to allow extra time for a midnight Mass, which was scheduled to begin at 10.45 and would be combined with Vigils. Paul was in the hotellerie, talking about the Croats with Gilles Nicolas and three African students, when three armed men entered the front door wearing army uniforms."Where is the Pope of this house?" the leader asked. He ordered Paul to go and find him.

One of the intruders turned to Nicolas. "Don't you know me? I was one of your students at university." While Paul went to find Christian, his former student tried to convince Nicolas that the monks should support their fight against the rotten regime. The montagnard added reassuringly, "You have nothing to fear. You are religious people."

Amedee was going to the kitchen to make himself an herb tea made from Linden leaves to help him sleep before Midnight Mass. On  his way there, he saw a man in khaki uniform and with a gun, leading Celestin and Paul across the inner courtyard. Amedee caught up with Celestin and asked in a whisper what the policeman wanted. "Can't you see, you fool, he's a terrorist!"

"You, everyone to the hotellerie," said the man, who turned toward Amedee and grabbed his sleeve. Amedee broke away, muttering that he had to close the main entrance gate, as he was circling back to go inside the main cloister he met Christian.

"They want to see you."
"I know. I am not in a hurry"

Amedee went in to the cloister and pulled the metal door behind him, leaving open a small crack that he could peer through.

They choose their time well, Christian reflected, as he walked to the hotellerie. It would be a publicity coup to kill nine monks on Christmas Eve. But he felt outrage, not fear, when he saw men with weapons inside the building.
"No one has ever come with a weapon into this house of peace," he admonished the man presented to him as le Chef. Christian turned the law on him. "Both you religion and mine forbid weapons in places of worship. If you want to talk here, you must leave your gun outside the building. Otherwise, we have to go outside."

The man followed Christian into the outer courtyard in front of the chapel, where the Virgin Mary stood with her arms extended in a gesture of welcome. He was thin and tall for an Algerian, made even taller by the Afghan turban covering his head, that complemented his bushy beard, dagger and bandoliers. he chopped the air frequently with his hands during the conversation. After fifteen minutes, the two walked back to the hotellerie, where another man joined them. Amedee was astonished to see both of them shake hands with Christian and then leave.

The incident was over by 8.00. Paul called it the visit of Father Christmas. When the montagnards left, Christian returned to the room with Gilles Nicolas where he repeated the conversation he had just had with Sayah Attia, the executioner of the Croats, and the emir of all combatants in the central region.

"We are religious, like you. we need your help, and you owe us your help." He had three demands. First, Luc was to go with them to take care of their wounded men.

"No, not that way. Luc is eighty years old. he has a bad heart and asthma. He will die if he goes. Send your wounded to the dispensary. Luc will treat them like everyone else." Attia demanded medical supplies.

"No, you can't take them, but they are available at the dispensary if your men need treatment." He wanted money. "The Church is rich."

"Who told you that? We have no money, and we are poor."

"You have no choice."

"Yes, we do. Anyway, we can't give you what we don't have. Ask the villagers. they know we live simply, only from the produce of the garden. you know the Koran. It is written that monks live modestly. that is why we are close to our neighbours." Surprised by Christian's intransigence, Attia walked back to the hotellerie, where two of his men waited.
"I am going to send someone back here. What is your name?"
"Then his password will be 'Monsieur Christian". Whatever my representative asks of you, you must give."
"Only as we have discussed, no more."
"You know", Christian added, "this is Christmas Eve. This is when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the son of Mary, whom we call Prince of Peace."

"Excuse me. I didn't know." Attia was taken aback by the reproach. As Christian reluctantly took their proffered hands, one of the men repeated, "You have nothing to fear. you are religious people. We do not consider you foreigners."

No comments: