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WEEK OF PRAYER: Despite persecution, N. Africa’s Kabylie churches flourish

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering supplements Cooperative Program giving to support more than 5,000 Southern Baptist missionaries as they share the Gospel overseas. This year’s offering goal is $175 million. The focus is on celebrating what God has done in recent years, praising Him for allowing Southern Baptists to be a part of His work, while emphasizing that reaching those who remain untouched by the Gospel is a doable task, but these will be the hardest people groups to reach — requiring that believers pray, go, partner and give as never before. The 2010 Week of Prayer for International Missions is Nov. 28-Dec. 5. To find resources about the offering, go to imb.org/offering.

NORTH AFRICA (BP)–They broke into the church at night to finish the job they’d begun weeks earlier.

Hard-line Islamists wanted to shut down a Kabylie church in North Africa that had recently moved into a largely Muslim neighborhood. Twice they’d successfully stopped services by barricading the church’s doors; they’d even threatened to kill the pastor. But each week the Christians returned to worship.

This time the Islamists poured gasoline over everything — chairs, Bibles, equipment — and set it ablaze.

The Kabyles, numbering more than 10 million people, are indigenous to North Africa. For centuries they’ve survived as farmers and shepherds among the snow-capped peaks and green slopes of the Atlas Mountains, which run east to west across the region paralleling the Mediterranean Sea. Though Christianity once thrived here (even giving birth to famous Christian theologians like St. Augustine), today nearly all Kabyles practice folk Islam, a blend of traditional Muslim beliefs with pagan customs like witchcraft and spirit worship.

Karim*, pastor of the targeted church, could see the glow of the flames from his rooftop. Five years earlier, he had started the church in his home with just three people. It grew to more than 400 members. They had relocated to a larger building only two months earlier, but now that was gone.

Attacks like this are a frightening reality for thousands of Kabylie Christians. They’re also evidence of the Gospel’s rapid growth and the depth of the Kabyles’ faith.

“Jesus was persecuted; we will be persecuted also,” Karim says simply of the attack that destroyed his church’s building. “But He asks us to follow [Him] … and to preach the Gospel, so I will.”

Sam Houston*, a Southern Baptist missionary from New York, has spent his career working with Kabyles. After 22 years of discipling, training and encouraging Kabylie believers, Houston and his wife Rachel* know the harsh sacrifices that come with following Christ.

Punishments usually range from verbal and physical abuse to ostracism by one’s family or community. The latter is particularly difficult for many Kabylie women who depend on male family members for basic needs. Houston says an unbelieving husband or father may choose to lock a Kabylie believer in her room and withhold food and access to friends or schooling until she reaffirms her Muslim faith. Death is also a genuine threat, Houston adds, though it is much rarer today. Poisoning new believers’ food was once a favored method of dealing with those who rejected Muhammad.

But persecution isn’t limited to Islamic zealots. In 2006, one North African country passed laws to strictly limit evangelism, making it illegal to do anything that could “shake the faith” of a Muslim. Penalties include a $1,200 fine and a three-year prison sentence. Ironically, Houston points out, the law has actually increased interest in the Gospel.

“Anytime the government tells you something is bad, everybody wants to go find out about it,” he says. “It’s given the Christians a far higher level of visibility than they ever had before…. Every week there are people knocking on the doors of the churches … saying, ‘What is this about Jesus?'”

Persecution is so widespread that nearly every Kabylie believer can share at least one story of personal oppression, mistreatment or torment for Christ’s sake:

— Saida Guermah*: Following her husband’s suicide in 2003, Guermah’s brother-in-law sued to take possession of the newly widowed mother’s house and land on the grounds that she had converted to Christianity. During the initial legal battle, Guermah said her brother-in-law made daily stops at her home to harass her into leaving, once threatening to kill her, cut her into pieces and dump her remains in the trash. After losing twice in lower courts, Guermah’s brother-in-law is appealing the case again.

— Yassin Mezoued*: In 2007 the bivocational pastor and father of five received a call from police warning him that a group of Muslim terrorists had made him their “pet project” and were plotting his murder. The ordeal ended with a police shootout in front of Mezoued’s church that killed two of the would-be assassins. Later police discovered and diffused a bomb the terrorists had planted near the church’s doorway. Though the violence succeeded in scattering Mezoued’s congregation, he now meets regularly with members in their homes and hopes one day to relocate the church to a safer area.

— Kamal Mohamed*: After accepting Christ in 2006, the wealthy Kabylie businessman felt led to offer his home as a meeting place for a fledgling church. But it wasn’t long before authorities came knocking at his door. Unregistered churches are illegal in Mohamed’s country and authorities eventually forced him to sign a statement promising he would no longer host the church. Mohamed promptly broke his promise; the church has grown from 15 to more than 120 members and still meets in his home. The consequences for his defiance include prison time, but he says the risk is worth it.

“I’m more concerned about my eternal life,” Mohamed says. “I am convinced that they can do nothing to me if God doesn’t allow it.”

Given attitudes like Mohamed’s, it’s no surprise that Kabylie churches are flourishing. From almost no believers or churches 50 years ago, today there are more than 21,000 Kabylie Christians and at least 120 Kabylie churches. That’s enough momentum to be considered a church-planting movement — a rapidly multiplying increase of indigenous churches planting churches within a given people group.

That’s not to say that missionaries like Houston — and by proxy, thousands of Southern Baptist churches through their support of the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and Cooperative Program — haven’t played an important role in the development of the Kabylie church.

Ministries like Project Northern Lights provide tens of thousands of New Testament Bibles, “JESUS” film DVDs and other Gospel materials — many tailored specifically for Kabyles — that are given to travelers returning to North Africa from European ports. The project depends on a steady stream of volunteers from churches like First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga.

The Georgia church, which has sent teams to serve with Northern Lights, now is in the process of renewing that partnership while forging new relationships to increase the church’s involvement with Kabyles and other North African people groups.

Johnny Hunt, pastor of First Baptist Woodstock and former Southern Baptist Convention president, notes, “America has known nothing in the way of persecution that [North Africa] has known. Yet, it has always been said that where it’s the darkest, the light shines the brightest. Just because a government does not allow you in does not mean that there are barriers to the Great Commission. More difficult, yes. Closed doors, never. Especially when there are open hearts.”

Hunt, who spent time with a group of Kabylie pastors in North Africa last year, reflects, “To meet these brothers … and hear how their church is only 5 years old, and they’re already averaging 450, 500 people, and yet they’re doing door-to-door evangelism. What incredible risk.

“We’re not talking about the church in hiding,” he adds. “We’re talking about bold proclamations…. And it’s so inspiring; it challenges us…. If they’re willing to do it [there], we should really take it up a notch in our own backyard.”

Houston himself was instrumental in the launch of a Kabylie radio ministry, the training of dozens of Kabylie pastors and church leaders and the translation of the New Testament into the Kabylie language. He is currently working to secure funding to complete an Old Testament translation.

But what is most remarkable about the Gospel’s growth among the Kabyles, Houston points out, is the absence — at least, initially — of an intentional human-driven church-planting strategy.

“[The Kabyles] talk about a special time of prayer in the 1980s when it just felt like the Holy Spirit was breaking loose,” he says. “And it was after that time really things began to blossom and the Lord began to … make it possible for the church to really flourish…. Previous to that there was long, patient, persevering prayer, and I’m not talking about a few months…. [T]his was done for many, many years.”

Kabylie believers refer to that time of growth as “the revival.” Farid Messaoudi* saw it firsthand.

Messaoudi came to Christ in 1983 at age 17, eventually leading his five siblings and parents to the Lord. Now, some 25 years later, he pastors a church of more than 75 Kabylie believers.

“God gave me the privilege of seeing the revival from the beginning … the Holy Spirit was moving from place to place and touching hearts,” Messaoudi says. “God’s Word spread and touched many families without any planning or strategy of humankind. I was the first believer in my village. I received the Gospel through a friend…. So, with full joy I shared the Gospel with other people in my village. And there were many conversions taking place.”

Though Messaoudi has endured some personal attacks and persecution for his faith, he says his church has been relatively unscathed — so far. Other congregations haven’t been so lucky.

Despite the loss of his church building and threats against his life, pastor Karim isn’t afraid and says the attacks and arson have only strengthened his congregation’s resolve.

“I’m encouraged because when I asked some of them [about the fire] … they said, ‘Now we are living the real Gospel,'” Karim says. Though he expects confrontations with Islamists to continue, he plans to use them as opportunities to witness.

“We have decided to love them and preach the Gospel to them,” he says.
*Name changed. Don Graham is a writer for the International Mission Board. See Kabyle Berbers in “I’m not afraid!” on the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering DVD-ROM (www.imbresources.org).

    About the Author

  • Don Graham