It is no easy task to compare the Algeria of today with the one where I pastored an Arab church in the 1970s and 1980s. It is nearly 25 years since our family left the second largest country in Africa after nine difficult but thrilling years.
In those days the country was governed by a strange mixture of socialism and Islam. Its people were still enjoying victory in the war of independence from France (1954-1962) during which a million Algerians lost their lives.
Tourism was not encouraged then, but today you can get cheap flights to Algeria — where visitors are invited to ski in the snow-covered mountains of the north, explore the Sahara Desert, or admire the prehistoric wall paintings in the Hoggar mountains to the south.
But the greatest change concerns the growth of the church in Algeria. Long ago, of course, the churches were strong in North Africa, but when Islam came 1200 years ago the churches died out. They had concentrated on ornate buildings, were inward-looking and were poorly taught in the Scriptures.
Occasional forays to reach Muslims with Christian truth were made by the Spanish missionary Raymond Lull, who was martyred in 1315 on the beach in Bejaia in northern Algeria. And in the sixteenth century an Englishman named John Harrison tried to set slaves free and teach them the Protestant faith.
But it was not until 1881, when the North Africa Mission (now Arab World Ministries) entered Algeria, that a concerted effort to evangelise North Africans was made. The Algiers Mission Band and American Methodists followed shortly after. Church growth was slow, with just a handful of converts won at great cost.
The coming of Bible correspondence courses in the 1960s gave a great boost, as thousands of young people signed up to One God, one way. Likewise missionaries after independence had great freedom to distribute scriptures. This brought inevitable police reaction, but they persevered in spite of occasional expulsions.
After independence, missionaries concentrated on Bible teaching and regular expository preaching. You can imagine our delight when six years ago my wife met some married women in France whom we had known as girls in Algeria. They told her that ‘the missionaries had taught them to love the Word of God’. Could missionaries hope for more?
There were baptisms in streams, the Mediterranean, and even a bathtub! When a police edict forbade us to meet in church buildings, our church was forced to meet in woods outside town.
But the infant churches rode these difficulties well and we were impressed by the tenacity of the young Christians — most of whom had been interrogated by secret or military police.
In fact I have never in all my life experienced church life nearer to the New Testament pattern. There were problems of immaturity, of course, but these young Christians were a lesson to us in their wholehearted following of the Master. It was thrilling to see the way they brought Muslim friends to learn about Christ.
Then some missionary colleagues were expelled and our residence visas were not renewed, forcing us to leave. There were tears as our young brothers and sisters in Christ said farewell, reminding us of Paul’s farewell to the elders of Ephesus in Acts 20.
But the Holy Spirit had been preparing young Algerians to take over, and the embryo churches did not collapse after the missionaries’ departure. This is still true today, when there are very few foreign missionaries in Algeria. Their absence is mainly due to the civil war in the 1980s and 1990s when the FIS (the Islamic Salvation Front) battled with police and army after being denied victory in elections.
According to the Government and press up to 150,000 men, women and children were killed by extremists; only in recent years has the Government claimed victory.
Some Christians fled to France when threatened with death by extremists, and there they became active in reaching their own people with the gospel. Others remained, bravely spreading the gospel in spite of menaces.
But the widespread, wanton killing of so many Algerians by other Algerians prompted many to seek a solution outside Islam. People began to turn to Christ in greater numbers, particularly among the Kabyles — non-Arabs who inhabited Algeria before the Islamic Arabs arrived.
In recent years there have been reports of thousands being converted and new house churches springing up, including some among Arab Algerians. Some reports, speaking of 100,000 Christians, are clearly exaggerated. Government newspapers spoke of over 40,000 Christians, possibly attempting to alarm the Muslim majority.
So how many Christians are there today? One trusted Algerian leader in France who maintains close contact with Algeria says 5000. Others suggest 10,000 – 20,000. Even so, what a phenomenal rate of increase compared with the 200 or so Algerian Christians in 1982!
However, there are also disturbing trends, notably through the presence of foreign and extreme Pentecostals — who are trying to influence the growing churches but had little to do with evangelising Algeria.
In one report an Algerian ‘pastor’ claimed to work miracles at will, while other Christians are being courted by French Roman Catholic bishops and priests who hitherto have regarded Evangelicals with suspicion. Still others are being influenced by liberal, ecumenical French Protestants.
Today the Algerian Christians face another grave danger — this time from the Government, who passed laws in March effectively outlawing all evangelising of Muslims by Christians. In addition, churches can now only use government-recognised buildings for worship. Failure to comply carries huge fines and prison sentences of up to five years.
The churches have prepared for this trial by stockpiling scriptures — in itself a bold move — to spread the gospel further. Stories have come out of Algeria of former extremists, guilty of murder, seeking peace with God through Christ.
A young man recently expressed himself in these words: ‘I would like to get in touch with you to get to know the Christian religion. I want to become a Christian’.
Today Algerian Christians are evangelising their own country. They are aided by radio, television, internet and text messages from abroad. The constant need is for good Bible-based and Christ-centred programmes. It is thrilling to learn that Arabic is the language most requested throughout the world when people download the Bible from the internet.
There are unconfirmed reports that the draconian measures by the Algerian Government have been ‘frozen’. But whatever happens we confidently look to God to use these dogged and courageous Christians to continue to build the church of Jesus Christ in Algeria