Giving hope to persecuted Christians since 1995
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By Aidan Clay

Washington, D.C. March 3 (ICC) – An angry mob of local Muslims, disturbed over the presence of the newly constructed Tafat Church in Tizi Ouzou, hoped that a little intimidation would scare the congregation away for good.  The mob broke in and ransacked the building one night, stealing sound equipment and lighting church property on fire. Nearly all furniture, Bibles and electrical appliances were damaged beyond repair.  “They came and smashed things up. They think we’re going to leave. But they cannot break our faith,” said Pastor Mustafa Krireche. 

International Christian Concern (ICC), a Washington DC-based human rights organization, visited Algeria, including Tizi Ouzou, just months after the attack on Tafat Church. The purpose for the visit was to encourage Algeria’s Christians and assist their unmet needs, but as happens more often than not when meeting with persecuted brethren, it was ICC who came away more encouraged. Meeting with house church pastors in remote villages in the beautiful Kabylie Mountains, they shared stories of God’s work amongst their people and reminisced about Algeria’s great – and enduring – 20 year revival.

It is no exaggeration to say that the greatest modern Christian rebirth in the Middle East or North Africa can be attributed to the reawakening of the church in Algeria’s Kabylie region. The Kabylie revival was neither inspired by missionaries nor introduced as a foreign movement, but was ignited by a small group of faithful believers in an obscure village. It was a rebirth indigenous to the national church where God is using dreams and visions to turn Muslims to Christ. In a country that many consider ‘closed’ to the Gospel and where proselytism is illegal under Algerian law, the steadfast devotion of Algeria’s Spirit-led church has overcome the government’s resolve to control the growth of its Christian minority.

It all began in 1981 with a 21-year-old boy from a poor family and a game of football. On the field, the young man befriended Arab visitors from a church in Algiers. It was the first time he experienced what he later recognized to be a ‘Christ-like’ example, and the first time he heard the Gospel. It was not long before this young man, now known as Pastor Raba, would entrust his life to God and carry the weight of a great calling – reaching the Kabylie region for Christ.

Pastor Raba and three friends formed a group and began meeting weekly. “We faced many things alone,” Pastor Raba explained. “Like new believers from Islam, we faced many problems with our families, with the police, and with the authority of the village. We tried to commit together, us four, but we didn’t know the Bible and we didn’t know how to pray.” The group began attending a church service in Algiers – a three day’s journey from their home village – as often as they could, but soon the government forced the church to close its doors. “We then decided to have meetings together even though we didn’t know anything, so in prayer we said ‘God, we don’t know anything, but we are ready if you want to use us.”

The group allotted the year between 1989 and 1990 for fasting and prayer. A year later, revival broke free. “During that year we went to villages where there were no Christians, we prayed for the village, and after a few months we would hear that there were believers there,” explained Pastor Raba. “People had dreams, visions, some of them discovered Christian radio programs. We didn’t share the Gospel directly with many people, but God in His way, preached the Gospel. It was like an explosion in all the Kabylie area and it’s continuing now.”

It is estimated that some 80,000 former Muslims in Kabylie have turned to Christ since the beginning of Algeria’s great revival. Some churches are seeing incredible growth, including a Tizi Ouzou congregation that began with twelve members in 1996 and now has 900 believers attending services. In fact, so many are coming to Christ in remote areas that it is becoming difficult to provide them with trained pastors and leadership. “Our biggest challenge is finding men and women who are called and trained to disciple, pastor and train the many believers coming to faith in different villages and towns,” explained Algerian Christian leader Youssef Ourahmane.

The Church’s growth has been most prevalent among the Berbers – not Arabs – whose rich Christian ancestry includes the 4th century theologian Augustine of Hippo. After the Muslim conquest of Algeria in the 680’s, many Christian Berbers withheld converting to Islam until the 12th century when heavy taxes and legal restrictions pressured them to do so. Up until today, these communities have refused to genuinely embrace Islam as their own, but are considered nominal Muslims who pride themselves in having preserved their native tongue while sheltering their culture from Arab influence.  

However, revival in a Muslim land never comes without trials and is bound to be followed by persecution. Throughout 2010, the Algerian government found subtle ways to arrest Kabylie Christians and put pressure on the church.  For example, on August 12, Salem Fellak and Hocine Hocini were arrested for eating during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of daylight fasting. They were acquitted of the charge a month later although the prosecutor demanded that they be punished for “insulting Islam.”

In another case, Pastor Mahmoud Yahou and three elders of a newly established evangelical church in a Kabylie village were prevented from continuing worship services. Al-Qaeda linked Salafist jihadists accused them of conducting ‘illegal’ Christian activity. Algerian security forces backed the Salafists by demanding that the church halt all worship services. Nonetheless, unlike the past when Algerian Christians were intimidated by the government, they are now standing up to the accusations and making sure their voices are heard. “This is the first time I’ve seen this in Algeria,” an Algerian activist explained at a Christian protest outside the court hearing of Pastor Yahou. “Many believers came to encourage the four brothers. The authorities refused to let Christians in the court, so we sang loudly to let them know that we were outside.”

While a long road lingers ahead before the Algerian government recognizes the religious freedom of its Christian minority, the church is not backing down. Amongst the church’s greatest challenges is disputing a law introduced in 2006 which prohibits evangelism and requires that all churches register before being allowed to worship. When church leadership tries to comply, the registration process takes so long and the procedure is so convoluted that it is near impossible to receive a permit to worship.

Despite attempts by the government to contain the growth of Christianity, the revival refuses to cease. Such revival has rarely been seen in Muslim countries, and while there are attacks on church buildings and charges are brought against Christian individuals, persecution has not discouraged Algeria’s faithful. When Pastor Youssef Ourahmane – one of the Algerian church’s most active and faithful leaders – was asked what verse encouraged him when leading his fellow countrymen down the narrow and difficult path of persecution toward Christ, he shared 1 Corinthians 15:58, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain…” Such steadfastness through toil for the sake of our Lord, seen in the Algerian church today, is an example all believers must strive to imitate.