North Africa Returning to its' Roots?

HxNAPictureBorderedToday North Africa is composed of Muslim countries where Islam is considered as the state religion. Churches are found in these countries and in greater number in the last 20 years with the rise of conversions to Christianity. The numbers of Christians in these countries remains rather small when compared to the overall populations. But some consider this movement towards Christianity as a sort of return to their roots as author Claude Lepelley suggests that “Western Latin Christianity was born in North Africa”.

Due to poor documentation it is difficult to retrace the steps of the first Christians to arrive in the African provinces.

The African Christianity

It is generally considered that the first Christians arrived in Africa before the year 180 since there is evidence of 12 Christians appearing in court to face charges at this date. Despite being clearly in the minority, the Christians seemed to have demonstrated courage and boldness to share their faith in the face of oppressive pagan imperial powers.

The history of the beginnings of Christianity in Africa is closely linked to Tertullian. Born to pagan parents, he entered the community of Christians at Carthage around 195 and became close to the elite and influential who would be able to protect him against repression from the authorities. Having been ordained as a priest, Tertullian set out in his first writings to struggle on behalf of the Christian Church that it might be officially recognized by the Empire.

Following Tertullian it is possible to begin talking about an African Christianity since it adopted a certain specific character. Through the writings of Tertullian Christian doctrine sought to free itself from every pagan institution that formed the foundation of Roman society during this time. Christians refused to participate in a number of ceremonies that were fundamental to civic life. In his work Idolatry, Tertullian suggested, for example, that Christians should no longer work as professors in an educational system where they were obligated to teach about pagan myths and worship practices. Tertullian underlined the difficulty of reconciling the military oath with that which was made during baptism as well as the ubiquitous pagan rites found in military life. The greatest dilemma for Christians serving in the military was the probability of killing the enemy during combat; something incompatible with the message of life of Christ (breaking the 6th commandment).

As a result Christians were accused of putting the city at risk by their refusal to serve in the military particularly during times of heightened conflict when greater numbers of soldiers were needed. Sanctions were administered against Christians sometimes to the point of death creating a situation of martyrdom for these believers. The increased incidence of martyrdom, their worship practices and their stories such as those of the martyrs Perpetue and Felicite were marks of Christianity in Africa. Martyrdom became an act of resistance and a cause for remembrance as these martyrs were recorded in a memorial calendar which served as a basis for the Christian calendar.

Although Tertullian liked the Empire and was convinced of its benefits to the African provinces the strict regulations placed on Christians gave rise to a climate of tension among the population.

The 3rd Century experienced a significant weakening of the religious foundations of imperial power. Belief in the emperor as a mythic being who was over all men and supposedly protected by the gods was called into question with the death of Dece in battle in 251. The guilty were quickly found; due to their impiety the Christians were accused of having angered the gods. Dece himself had already introduced the idea of 'scapegoat' during what was called the 'persecution of Dece' from 249-251, the first official attack against the African Church, which was ratified by public edict in 249 requiring Christians to pray for the salvation of the Emperor. Now Christians found themselves faced with a choice. Several attitudes emerged: some followed the instructions of the authorities and bowed to the edict going so far as to sacrifice animals, something categorically forbidden by their dogma (this lapse of judgment was poorly received when later these 'protestors' tried to reintegrate into the community), others found it inconceivable to renounce their faith and preferred to flee, while still others chose to openly declare their dissatisfaction with the people putting their lives at risk.

The persecutions

After a brief period of calm the persecutions began again in 257 under the pressure of Valerian. This Roman senator who was close to the elite that were hostile toward Christianity employed a new tactic to weaken the Christians. He decided to cut the Christian elite at their base. The governors of the province ordered all clergy to be exiled that refused to devote themselves to the sacrificial rites. In this way, Cyprian of Carthage, a prominent figure in African Christianity, was exiled; others were condemned to work in the mines. The persecution became bloody one year later when Cyprian and other clerics, victims of new Roman measures, were condemned to death and decapitation. It wasn't until after the death of Valerian in 260 that calm reigned once again in Africa. His son Gillian proved to be much more conciliatory. He halted the pursuit of Christians and ratified an edict of tolerance; a brief window of peace for the Church. This peaceful coexistence allowed the African Church to develop in the provinces and to grow its' numbers.

And so it appeared that the new faith would be established much more rapidly in North Africa than in Europe notably because of the social role of the Church that emerged the second half of the 3rd Century. The Church of Africa was progressively established. By the 4th Century Carthage became one of the largest spiritual capitals of the West.

The Emperor Diocletian decided to reorganize the administration of the Empire which permitted centralized control based on equality of all its vast territories and put a definitive end to the preeminence of Italy. However this created great confusion as there were up to 6 emperors at the same time. The reforms undertaken by Diocletian were rigid and oppressive particularly in the area of the economy. He persecuted Christians beginning in 303 and albeit a brief period it was the most murderous times of persecution in the Roman Empire thus earning the name The Great Persecution. The massacres of Christians intensified in part because the number of pagans supporting them also increased.

One consequence of the Great Persecution for the Christian world was the Donatist schism beginning in 307. The Donatists refused the validity of the sacraments offered by the bishops who had renounced their faith during the persecutions of Diocletian, a position that was condemned in 313 by the Council of Rome.

The schism continued in Roman Africa until the end of the century. Meanwhile an edict of tolerance was signed April 30, 311. The Christians rose from the ashes of these various edicts of persecutions proving that they had no effect on their faith. They continued to believe in their God rather than the gods of their ancestors and in fact they were rallied to pray for the Romans and their empire. Christianity was now authorized in the Roman Empire by order of Emperor Constantine who had converted to Christianity. This conversion posed problems for the relationship between the Church and government. Called upon by the African bishops to intercede in the Donatist quarrel, Constantine organized in 313 (or 314) the first Council for the bishops to solve the matter between them. He later called and presided over the Council of Nicaea in 325 which recognized Christ as both God and Man simultaneously.

Saint Augustine

In the 4th Century Africa welcomed another significant personality to the history of Christianity. Augustine of Hippo, Saint Augustine, was born in Thagaste (present day Souk-Ahras, Algeria) on November 13, 354 and later died August 28, 430 in Hippo (present day Annaba, Algeria). Philosopher, writer, Christian theologian and catholic bishop of Hippo, Augustine, Roman citizen of Berber origin, was one of the primary Latin Church Fathers and one of 33 Doctors of the Church. After an education that was entirely focused on Christian faith and studies, he left at age 16 for Carthage to complete and perfect his education. There he abandoned religion to devote himself to the study of rhetoric. He was only 20 when he took a concubine and had a son with her. While teaching rhetoric and eloquence at Carthage he decided at 21 to take his family to Rome. Not finding work there as he had hoped, he accepted a position as a teacher in Milan where he came under the influence of the eloquent bishop of the city, Saint Ambrose. This was the beginning of Augustine's conversion as evidence by his sending away of his mistress and son. However, he quickly found a new woman. One day Augustine was suddenly hit by the grace of God while in a garden in Milan as he explained to one of his students about an internal struggle that tore him up inside. He then abandoned the world and withdrew to a monastery.

In 387 Augustine was baptized by Saint Ambrose and the following year he returned to North Africa where he became the defender of Christian Orthodoxy writing innumerable letters and sermons against the heretics of his time as well as many treatises on philosophy and metaphysics. At the age of 41, in 395, Augustine was consecrated as Bishop of Hippo where he spent the rest of his life according to church regulation that prohibited the transferring of bishops. He hosted a small community of brothers in his own home which followed the example of the monastic rule. The sack of Rome by the Goths August 24, 410 provided the pretext for Augustine to begin to explain the significance of Christianity in history and history in Christianity which became his work titled "City of God". He died on August 28, 430 at the age of 76 in Hippo under siege by Barbarians.

Saint Augustine is the only Church Father whose works and writings gave birth to a system of thinking. This was called Augustinism and it had immense influence on the Western Church. Augustinism influenced all medieval philosophical and theological reflection plus provided food for debate during the Protestant Reformation and the Jansenism movement. The debates provoked by the interpretation of Augustinism largely contributed to modern conceptions of liberty and human nature.

Late Antiquity and arrival of Islam

In 429, led by the chief Genseric, the Vandals crossed the Strait of Gibraltar. 10 years later after conquering Hippo, the Vandals entered Carthage and established their kingdom there for nearly a century. Many men of the Church were martyred, imprisoned or exiled. However the Latin culture was largely preserved and Christianity prospered as it didn't opposed the ruler in place.

This period of history referred to as Late Antiquity was dominated by what historians call 'Roman Civilization' which was in fact a mixture of various ancient traditions including contributions and influences by Christians and 'Barbarians'. Theological debates, tensions in the relationship between the Emperor and the Church and the development of Christian buildings were hallmarks of this time period. Late Antiquity was a crucial period for the passing down of culture, science and more generally the body of knowledge collected from the various ancient civilizations. This period of history was a turning point between Ancient History and the Middle Ages.

From a spiritual perspective the first centuries of Christianity served to elaborate Christian doctrine and it certainly was not without division or conflict. Besides the disputes of primacy there were numerous dogmatic quarrels. It was in this context that Islam arrived on the scene in Arabia. The conquest of the whole of North Africa by the Umayyads at the end of the 7th Century brought a triumphant Islam to the churches of North Africa to replace a Christianity that was rife with internal struggles due to heresies. Islam itself was possibly viewed as another form of heresy! Roman Africa submitted to Arab domination after the fall of Carthage in 698. The Byzantine World and the Arabo-Muslim World definitively replaced the Eastern Roman World.

In the new Muslim order Christians and Jews became part of the dhimmi (a dhimmi is a non-Muslim subject of a state governed in accordance with sharia law. The term connotes an obligation of the state to protect the individual, including the individual's life, property, and freedom of religion and worship, in exchange for "subservience and loyalty to the Muslim order" and a poll tax known as the jizya). This state of affairs pushed some to convert to Islam and others to emigrate. Over the centuries this ushered in the erosion even the extinction of Christianity in North Africa. Of the original Christian churches of this time period only the Coptic Church in Egypt survives to this day.

The State of the North African Church Today

The percentage of Christians in North Africa is very small. However, in the last 20 years we have witnessed a marked growth in the number of conversions to Christianity to the point where North Africans can no longer deny the presence of Christians in their countries. This is a fact that seemed unimaginable just 10 or 20 years ago. More details can be found at the end of each country profile.

In Algeria the movement really began in the 1980s particularly among the Kabyles.

In Morocco the movement is lacking the same speed and force as Algeria but growth is none the less consistent and regular.

In Tunisia it was only at the end of the 90s that the number of conversions began to multiply following a widespread campaign of intercession for this nation.

In Mauritania the number of Christians is still small and sometimes suffers from ethnic divisions.

Libya remains the most difficult country restricted by a hard-line Islamic regime.

In a general sense the Muslim context works against those who are drawn to the Gospel. Islam is more than religion. It's a culture and above all a social structure that frowns upon personal choice. The pressures both, physical and psychological are enormous coming from every angle: government, society, friends, family, loved ones etc.

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