ORAN, ALGERIA (AFP) - The Catholic Church will on Saturday (Dec 8) beatify seven French monks and 12 other clergy killed in Algeria during the country's civil war, the first ceremony of its kind in a Muslim nation.
The Trappist monks were abducted from the Priory of Our Lady of Atlas in Tibhirine, about 80km south-west of Algiers, by Islamist gunmen in March 1996.
Their severed heads were discovered two months later and their deaths were announced by the insurgent Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA).
The tragedy inspired a 2010 French film, Des Hommes Et Des Dieux (Of Gods and Men), starring Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale that won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.
The Vatican declared in January that the monks were martyrs for their faith, along with the 12 others slain in Algeria between 1994 and 1996, including Bishop Pierre Claverie of Oran.
Frenchman Claverie, who strove to improve ties between different faiths, was assassinated along with his driver in a bomb attack at his office in 1996.
The five other religious men and six women killed, including citizens of France, Spain, Belgium and Tunisia, were gunned down in 1994 and 1995.
Beatification is the first step on the path to Roman Catholic sainthood.
It is reserved for three categories of people: martyrs, those who have lived a life of heroic values, and others with a clear saintly reputation.
Some 200,000 people lost their lives in Algeria's 1991-2002 civil war between Islamists and security forces, dubbed the country's "Black Decade".
Archbishop of Algiers Paul Desfarges said the ceremony in the north-western port city of Oran was "a way to highlight" the dedication of the 19 men and women who remained in the country during the violence.
"They did not hesitate to risk their lives because the most important thing for them was their relationship with others, rather than protecting themselves," he told AFP.
Father Thomas Georgeon, who presented the case in Rome for the beatification, said it was the first time the Church would carry out such a ceremony in a Muslim country.
He insisted the move was not intended to "glorify the death of Christians at the hands of Muslims, but to mark their deaths alongside those of so many Algerian martyrs".
The Algerian authorities in April officially gave the Vatican approval for the beatification to take place in the North African country.
The event will be presided over by Pope Francis's envoy Angelo Becciu.
Archbishop Desfarges said he hoped the beatification would serve to reinforce the ties between the Catholic Church and the people of Algeria - just like the work of those being celebrated.
"We did not want to hold the beatification just among Christians, as these brothers and sisters died alongside dozens and dozens of thousands of Algerians," he said.
"We want to continue to be the church of friendship, brotherhood and coexistence."