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Endless sand... sun... camels... caravans... nomads... ancient trade routes crossing the emptiness... these are a few of the mental pictures that flash across the mind-screen when most of us hear the words "North Africa".
For others the images are more personal and fearful: gunshots... tear gas... smoke... screams filling the streets from religious, ethnic and political conflict both ancient and modern.
The Arabic-speaking people who live to the east simply call it "The Maghreb" ("The West"). But to Christians everywhere North Africa is known best as the "Land of the Vanished Church".
The church in North Africa was born on the very day the global church was born. From the lands we now know as Libya, people first brought news of that remarkable Pentcost (Acts 2:10). They were soon followed by others who had lingered in Jerusalem to spend more time in the company of the apostles and the other Christians there. "Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts." (Acts 2:46)
Sometime later, news reached the Libyan coast that Peter had visited a Roman centruion, and the Gentiles in his house had received the salvation of God and the gift of the Holy Spirit just as the Jews had. The Gentiles of North Africa - Romans and Berbers - heard with great interest how the apostles and elders in Jerusalem had welcomed men and women like themselves into the church of Christ.
Christianity is therefore a fundamental part of the rich North African heritage. The way of Christ was known and loved here long before it reached northern Europe and America. The gospel that took root in North Africa in the first century was the vulnerable faith of a persecuted minority. For three hundred years the Berbers heard and responded to the Word of God not because Roman power but despite it. Roman governors and magistrates did their utmost to suppress the faith, destroy its leaders and force its followers back into the pagen temples. A relentless stream of stringent laws, enacted at the highest levels by a succession of tyrannical emperors, was designed to wipe Christianity off the face of the globe.
Yet the churches of North Africa flourished in those years of persecution. (See the testimony of Perpetua.) Tertullian, a leader of the 4th century<> church, wrote: "Despite the fiercest opposition, the terror of the greatest persecution, Christians have held with unswerving faith to the belief that Christ has risen, that all men will rise in the age to come and that the body with live forever." So firm was their faith, and so effective their outreach, that by the third century most of what is now Tunisia and much of Algeria had become Christian.
The early believers achieved these marvelous results through personal witness - without radio, correspondence courses, audio or videocassettes or printed literature. North Africa produced many celebrated martyrs and some of the greatest theologians, including three of the foremost Christian writers of all time - Terullian, Cyprian and Augustine. Their words rise up and speak to us today:
In the fourth and fifth centuries, however, this spectacular Christian growth was followed by an equally remarkable collapse. The churches which were poised to take the gospel throughout Africa faltered, stumbled and soon disappeared without a trace. They failed completely to capitalize on the freedom offered them by the Edict of Milan in AD 313. When Vandal and Arab invaders arrived in the fifth and seventh centuries, the churches were unable to offer any resistance or even to survive the introduction of new religious systems.
Centuries have passed with little visible Christian presence. Today, however, there is a fresh movement of the Holy Spirit across North Africa. Christians around the world are praying that the so-called "Vanished Church" will become a visible and victorious church in the near future.
A mission leader who has ministered in the Middle East for more than twenty years tells story after story of God's working in recent times. He conculdes that "The Spirit of God is moving in currents across the Muslim world. We are living in pregnant days."
Today there are an esitmated 10,000 known Arab and Berber believers in North Africa. Certainly there are many more secret believers. Intense pressure and outright persecution have driven many to emigrate overseas.
In many ways simply preserving the existing church is a great victory. But could there be hope for more than mere preservation?
Could this be the time for the rebirth of the vital church of ancient North Africa?
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