For nearly 10 years (1991-99), the country of Algeria was plunged into a horrific civil war. The brutality was unimaginable as an estimated 60,000 to 200,000 people were killed.
Ironically, few in the Western world were aware of what was happening until Cistercian monks living in northern Algeria were massacred in 1996.
They had been offered protection by local political leaders but refused, claiming that they should not have security while the villagers around them lived in fear.
When given the chance to leave the country secretly, the monks chose to remain among the people they were called to serve.
They were kidnapped and later found, beheaded, in a common grave.
My wife and I were planting a church in downtown Paris, France, at the time, and some of our closest friends were Algerian. So we saw and felt their anguish and concern for friends and family back home.
Several young people from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia became followers of Jesus and formed the backbone of our church planting work. I vividly recall querying them as to the state of the Christian church in North Africa.
Their answers burned a deep hole in my heart and conscience – “There isn’t really a church, just a tiny handful of believers, maybe a couple hundred at most.”
As the civil war in Algeria ended, we began to hear about conversions and profound spiritual experiences, especially among the Berber people from our Algerian friends whose family members were becoming Christ-followers.
We heard of entire towns in the Atlas Mountains where one family after another became believers.
This was all taking place during a fierce period of religious opposition to Christianity where the threat of persecution – and even death – lingered everywhere.
This past summer, my wife and I travelled with Canadian Baptist Ministries’ (CBM) global field staff, Mireille and Elie Haddad, to North Africa on a fact-finding assignment for CBM and the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) in Beirut, Lebanon.
We were able to witness the stunning growth of the church there, which has increased from an estimated 200 Christians in 1991 to more than 100,000 Christians today.
In one city, we attended a church service of more than 650 Christians. To our astonishment, all the seats in the sanctuary and annex, where they rebroadcast the service via video feed, were full 45 minutes prior to the beginning of the service because people were so excited to gather together in Jesus’ name.
In another village, we met a pastor who received a phone call from the local imam who happened to be doing Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca), asking him to care for his children and wife should anything happen while he was away.
“I can trust the Christians to care for my family,” the Muslim leader explained.
We heard of a church that has started a shelter for battered women in their community, not only those who are beaten for becoming Christians but also for Muslim women in abusive relationships.
Another church has an outreach to Chinese nationals who are working in the oil and natural gas sectors.
It is a great witness of the global reach of the gospel, transcending cultural and linguistic boundaries.
In another town, where just seven years ago Christians were beaten and spat upon, there is now an annual municipal Christmas celebration with carols, stories and gifts of Bibles to the townspeople.
In spite of this tremendous growth, there is still no official Christian seminary in the region.
ABTS represents one of the foremost means whereby Arabic-speaking Christians from Muslim backgrounds can receive theological education. More than 85 percent of the leaders of the church in Morocco are ABTS graduates.
During our visit to Algeria, we asked Christian leaders about the future of the church in their country.
They were optimistic and enthusiastic, sharing how the government has become increasingly tolerant of non-Islamic religious movements.
But safety continues to be an ongoing concern and they asked us to pray that their children would not be deterred in their Christian journey by some neighbors who spit on them as they walk to school.
Yet these leaders not only persevere, but also rejoice in their circumstances.
“We pray that the persecution won’t end because we fear that when it ends, so too will end the revival,” one leader noted poignantly.
Looking ahead, we at CBM strongly feel that this movement of God’s Spirit in North Africa will help shape a new day for the global church.
Great doors will open for Christian witness as new churches are planted, seminary students are trained, and followers of Jesus are emboldened in their witness.
But we remain mindful that along with such blessings often come huge challenges – increased hostility by extremists, renewed oppression and persecution, and the threat of sectarianism and internal division within the church.
Terry Smith is deputy executive director and director of international partnerships at Canadian Baptist Ministries (CBM). A longer version of this article first appeared in the Winter 2014 Mosaic magazine, a publication of CBM. It is reprinted with the permission of Mosaic magazine.
Terry Smith is executive director of Canadian Baptist Ministries.