North Africa

Unlike Egypt and the Lebanon, North Africa had no remnants of ancient churches to keep alive some semblance of Christian testimony. When Islam swept across the area in the early seventh century, the church of Augustine and many early martyrs (see Africa, Roman) was swept away and Christianity for centuries was repressed, apart from the Roman Catholic presence in some Moroccan coastal stations and neighboring islands. It was not until the 1860s that Roman Catholic missionaries were concerned with much more than ministering to the European population, and not until 1908 was the mission raised to the status of a vicariate apostolic. Meanwhile, in Algeria and Tunisia during that same century there was extensive immigration from France, Spain, and Italy, and this predominantly Roman Catholic population helped also the work of missions (there had been sporadic work in Algiers and Tunis from the mid-seventeenth century). By 1866 the archbishopric of Algiers claimed to have 187 parishes and 273 secular priests; by 1884 its head was designated archbishop of Carthage and primate of Africa; by 1930 the Roman Catholic population was reported to have been 805,000. Converts among non-Christians were few, and the work was made harder, not only by the hostility of Islam, but by the discouragement of the French civil authorities.

Less than a century has passed since Protestant missionaries entered North Africa. An English businessman, Edward Glenny, was the prime mover in the establishment of a mission to the Kabyles. These people, who live in the central mountains of Algeria, were fully Islamized and formed part of the larger group of Berber people who live across North Africa. The stated aim of the mission was to give them the gospel of Jesus Christ. The work eventually spread to Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco, and became known as the North Africa Mission.

Other work followed. Lilias Trotter* was responsible for the formation of the Algiers Mission Band, which made special efforts to reach the oases dwellers of the south. In the same year (1888) John Anderson founded the Southern Morocco Mission, seeking especially to evangelize the Berbers and Arabs of that large area. More recently these three missions have combined to form the North Africa Mission, with an international structure and headquarters in the south of France.

Over the same period the American Methodists, the Emmanuel Mission, Mennonite Mission, Sahara Desert Mission, Southern Baptist Convention, Gospel Missionary Union, Bible Churchman's Missionary Society, and the Christian Brethren have all worked in various parts of North Africa. Most of them, if not all, have suffered setbacks in the past decade, due to an aggressive nationalism which has been strongly Islamic and, generally speaking, unfavorable to the West.

Islam, both socially and religiously, has been fiercely resistant to the Gospel, and from the beginning faithful personal witness and testimony has been the pattern. Classes for all ages gradually became possible; such skills as carpet making, woodwork, pottery, embroidery, and knitting usually formed the popular appeal which enabled the missionaries to make their first friendly contact with the people. Large-scale medical work has never been allowed, but in Morocco and Algeria small but intensely busy clinics have been maintained, with many smaller ones in the interior. Often they have specialized in midwifery. There are two hospitals run by missionaries in the same two countries.

Arabic is the main language of North Africa, and the literary or Van Dyke Bible has been widely distributed. The NT and various portions have been published in the colloquials, and the whole Bible has been published in North African Arabic by the British and Foreign Bible Society, whose agents have long worked in North Africa. Bookshops, as selling bases and centers of testimony, have been established. Sometimes the work has been of a polemical nature, but there has been a more positive outreach to students.

Two world wars saw the emergence of Islamic nationalism and a resentful feeling that Christianity was the religion of the occupying power and that the latter and its religious emissaries should go. There have been no mass expulsions of missionaries, but many individuals and some complete groups have ceased to function. During the period of intense nationalism, the radio and Bible correspondence course ministry of the North Africa Mission based in Marseilles has proved a powerful means of gospel penetration, permitting thousands to study the basic facts of the Gospel and its implications in a way unknown before. The Muslim authorities are well aware of this and lose no opportunity by press and radio of warning the masses against the Christian impact. Earlier there were scattered converts, often without contact with other Christians and rarely able to form worshiping groups. These combined ministries have resulted in the establishment of many small groups, often meeting informally and frequently facing much opposition, all over North Africa.

The criticism has been made that though there were converts here and there over the area, the missionaries of different evangelical societies had rarely been able to bring them together to form witnessing, functioning churches. It should be said, however, that there have been various emphases in the whole approach to the building of the church. The Methodists have been church-conscious from the beginning, and through their hostels and training centers have sought to provide a trained, recognized leadership of national churches. Evangelical missions generally tend nevertheless to be individualistic, with their policies reflecting the patterns of the countries from which the missionaries have come. North Africa presents a background of ideological conflict and spiritual inquiry, and it is against this that the Christian is called to fulfill his mandate to preach the Word of reconcilation, and to plan afresh in strength the true church of Jesus Christ.

J. Rutherford and E.H. Glenny, The Gospel in North Africa (1900); R. Kerr, Morocco after Twenty-Five Years (1912); A. Philippe, Missions des Pères Blancs en Tunisie, Algérie, Kabylie, Sahara (1931); A. Pons, La Nouvelle Êglise d'Afrique ou le Catholicisme en Algérie, en Tunisie et au Maroc depuis 1830 (n.d.); B.A.F. Pigott, I. Lilias Trotter (n.d.); F.R. Steele, “Tolerance and Truth,” Cross and Crescent (June 1963); R. Stewart, “The New Algeria,” North Africa (September/October 1963); K.S. Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, vol. 6 (rep. 1970), pp.9-20.