The age of religious war is supposed to be long past, but try telling that to members of the fledgling Christian movement across North Africa. The region, conquered by the followers of Muhammad more than a millennium ago, is witnessing a renewed assault on the church — and indeed on religious liberty.
“The Muslim-Christian fault line stretches from Senegal across the Sahel to Ethiopia and along Africa’s Indian Ocean seaboard,” says Operation World, the authoritative daily prayer guide. “The potential for widened conflagrations and confrontations is high because of increasingly aggressive Islamist movements and because of African Christian evangelism gaining converts from within Muslim communities.”
For this report, we will focus on three nations in particular: Algeria, Libya and Egypt.
In Egypt, of course, last year a popular uprising toppled Hosni Mubarak, a longtime ally of the U.S., and opened the door for even less savory power brokers. “The so-called Arab Spring has brought good news to Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt,” said former Open Doors USA president Carl Moeller, “which is celebrating the rise of a former member, Mohammad Morsi, as president. But the political upheaval has been bad news for many of the region’s Christians.”
Indeed. Even as the Brotherhood has seized control of Egypt’s constitution, life for the country’s Christian minority has deteriorated. According to a report commissioned by Christian Solidarity International, increasing numbers of Coptic women and girls have been kidnapped, forced to marry Muslim men, and made to convert to Islam.
Yet increased pressure over the last decade has not crushed the evangelical churches, which are growing by 5 percent annually. “A prayer and renewal movement has burst onto the scene in recent years with many thousands from all the major churches participating,” Operation World reports. “This cultivates unity, spiritual vitality and vision for outreach.”
Algeria appears to be experiencing the same kind of dynamic — spiritual growth amid persecution. The sprawling country of 35 million people, of course, is the scene of the recent bloody attack on a Western gas facility by Islamists. It is just the latest incident in a region facing growing Arab Muslim chaos and confusion.
Last year’s toppling of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi has brought not an explosion of democracy but a new opportunity for Islamist groups to spread their own dark vision, as Gadhafi had warned. “Bin Laden's people would come to impose ransoms by land and sea," he said. "We will go back to the time of Redbeard, of pirates, of Ottomans imposing ransoms on boats."
It has certainly seemed that way in Libya and in neighboring Algeria. In post-Gadhafi Libya, Islamic extremists attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on September 11 and murdered four American personnel. So far, none of the perpetrators has been brought to justice. In Algeria, Muslim extremists kidnapped dozens of American and other employees of a Western gas facility in January, prompting a bloody rescue in which 37 hostages and 29 militants died. The case is far from closed.
“Even as Obama administration officials vowed to hunt down the hostage-takers in Algeria,” reports The New York Times, “they faced the added challenge of a dauntingly complex jihadist landscape across North Africa that belies the easy label of ‘Al Qaeda,’ with multiple factions operating among overlapping ethnic groups, clans and criminal networks.
Yet the church there continues to grow. Algeria’s Christian movement, particularly among the minority Berber people, who constitute about a quarter of the population, continues to multiply, much as it has over the last decade or so. “A long road of tearful sowing by a tenacious succession of missionaries and intercessors,” says Operation World, “is bearing beautiful fruit — while impossible to assess accurately, some believe that the number of believers far exceeds 100,000. The large majority are Kabyle Berber in background, but faith is growing among Arabs and almost every other people as well.”
Even in Libya, which has had some of the hardest spiritual soil in the region and where the number of Christian believers is vanishingly small, the gospel is starting to take hold. “The spiritual climate in Libya has changed significantly,” Operation World says. “There is notable spiritual hunger among Libyans, but not enough Bibles for those seeking them. Increasing numbers of Libyans are coming to Christ (although still only a few), and expatriate Christians now enjoy greater spiritual liberty than in the past.”
Only time will tell whether the recent and ongoing resurgence in Islamic radicalism will squelch the growing Christian movement across North Africa, as the Muslim invaders did centuries ago. But there is cause for hope. As Operation World notes about Libya, “God is doing a new work in this land.”
Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century,and coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Stan blogs at http://stanguthrie.com/blog.
Publication date: January 25, 2013