SBC Life Articles

Churches Flourishing Despite Persecution

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.

Karim* could see the glow of the flames from his rooftop. Five years earlier, the Kabylie pastor started the church in his home with just three people. It grew to more than four hundred 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."

Indigenous to North Africa, the Kabyles number more than ten million. 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 Augustine), today nearly all Kabyles practice folk Islam, a blend of traditional Muslim beliefs with pagan customs like witchcraft and spirit worship.

Sam Houston* is a Southern Baptist missionary from New York who has spent his career working with Kabyles. After twenty-two 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, access to friends, or schooling until she reaffirms her faith in Islam. 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 bi-vocational 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 he hopes to one day relocate the church to a safer area.

Kamal Mohamed:* After trusting 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, however, chose to obey God rahter than man; the church has grown from fifteen 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 fifty 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 the Cooperative Program — haven't played an important role in the development of the Kabylie churches.

Ministries like Project Northern Lights provide tens of thousands of New Testaments, 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 of Woodstock, Georgia.

First Baptist, Woodstock, once sent teams to serve with Northern Lights every summer, and is now 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.

"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," says Woodstock pastor and former Southern Baptist Convention President Johnny Hunt. "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."

Last year Hunt spent time with a group of Kabylie pastors in North Africa.

"To meet these brothers … and hear how their church is only five years old, and they're already averaging 450 to 500 people, and yet they're doing door-to-door evangelism. What incredible risk," Hunt says. "We're not talking about the church in hiding. 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 notes, 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 things really 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. This was done for many, many years."

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

He came to Christ in 1983 at age 17, eventually leading his five siblings and parents to the Lord. Now, some twenty-five years later, Messaoudi pastors a church of more than seventy-five 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 explains. 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




The 2010 Week of Prayer for International Missions is November 28 – December 5. This year's theme is "Are We There Yet?" Every penny given to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering is used to support more than five thousand Southern Baptist missionaries as they share the Gospel overseas. This year's offering goal is $175 million. The 2010 emphasis is a celebration of what God has done in recent years, praising Him for allowing Southern Baptists to be a part of His work. Are we there yet? Not yet, but reaching those who remain untouched by the Gospel is a doable task. They will be the hardest to reach, requiring that we pray, go, partner, and give as never before. For more resources go to www.imb.org and click on "Lottie Moon."

    About the Author

  • Don Graham