Roots of civil war in Algeria

Continent_africa algeria teachingTeaching: THE GOSPEL SPREADS FROM JERUSALEM TOWARD ALGERIA. The recent hostage crisis that took at least 81 lives has deep roots in conflicts that broke out throughout North African history. Algeria—where militant Muslims clashed with moderate Muslims in the 1990s civil war that killed about 100,000—was once the center of Christian controversies at the end of the Roman empire. Algeria was a major part of the 1st century spread of Christianity over both the European and the North African coasts of the Mediterranean Sea. The gospel likely first arrived in North Africa when Simon returned to Cyrene after carrying Jesus’ cross (Mark 15:21), or when Jews from “the districts of Libya around Cyrene” returned home after witnessing the Pentecost outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:10) at the house of prayer in Jerusalem. Men from Cyrene were among the first to preach to Gentiles at Antioch (now in Syria, Acts 11:20). Lucius of Cyrene was one of the prophets and teachers at Antioch who sent Paul and Barnabas off on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-4).

The gospel also spread westward beyond Cyrene along the North African coast to Carthage, now Tunis in present-day Tunisia—only about 140 miles from Algeria. At Carthage, Perpetua and her slave-girl Felicitas—who converted Perpetua—were martyred in AD 203 during the Decian persecution, and the church fathers Tertullian and Cyprian vigorously argued against heresy in the 3rd century AD.

THE PERSECUTED CHURCH BECOMES A PERSECUTOR. The most famous church father, Augustine, once a heretic himself, wrote the classic Confessions which is still high in demand for many college classes. It is a ground-breaking journal of his restless wanderings in Carthage, a “cauldron of unholy loves,” and his radical conversion in Milan, Italy which launched his career. On his return to North Africa, Augustine was elected bishop of Hippo, now Annaba, Algeria. Augustine is cited by both Catholics and Protestants for his overall sound doctrine and searching interpretations of Scripture. But in the Donatist controversy he set a dangerous precedent for all ensuing church history.

In the early 3rd century Tertullian had argued the Holy Spirit made one holy, and the Christian must keep separate from all that is unholy. In the mid 3rd century Cyprian had argued that the bishop made one holy, and that Christians who had backslidden under persecution could be declared forgiven and restored by the bishop. In the early 5th century Augustine argued that the Catholic church made one holy, even if that person was declared holy by a backslidden bishop. The Donatists insisted that such a bishop could not have that authority and should not be allowed to preside in a house of prayer. They also argued that Christians who had backslidden under persecution must be rebaptized. They took their case to court, but a papal commission found against them, and they left the Catholic church to start their own more puritan churches. The radical fringe of the Donatists went so far as to seize and plunder Catholic churches in what is now Algeria, rape nuns, and feed communion bread to dogs.

Augustine, who had once taught against using force on fellow Christians, changed his mind and approved of Roman authorities who violently put down the whole Donatist movement in 409. From this conflict Augustine developed his theory of just war, which contains some very admirable guidelines and restraints for warfare (see Note below). But the fact that Augustine advocated violence against those who broke from the church—not only those who broke the law—set a precedent for a long and tragic history of church wars against of heretics and people of other faiths. The once persecuted church became the persecutor. It usurped the mandate of the government as “an agent of wrath to bring punishment” on lawbreakers (Rom. 13:4). .

Donatists managed to survive and thrive for three centuries after this persecution. But the conflict weakened the church and made North Africa easier to conquer by the Vandals in 429—who were in turn overthrown by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 533—and finally by the Islam in the late 7th century. Islam was a derivative religion. It borrowed from what little Muhammad knew of Judaism and Christianity, including unbiblical elements such as the use of discrimination and force against other sects and faiths. One cannot force faith—that is a contradiction. Yet it was mostly by force that Muslims rapidly conquered North Africa, including present-day Algeria, as well as the Middle East, Persia and beyond.

MUSLIMS CONQUER BY FORCE NOT FAITH. And it was by force that Muslim rule was maintained by one government in Algeria after another for more than 1000 years. Shariah law, which was enforced more at some times than others, made all non-Muslims second-class citizens. The Muslim government in Algeria forced them to pay extra taxes, prohibited the building of new houses of worship, outlawed proselytism, and forbade them from testifying against any Muslims—leaving them vulnerable to persecution without recourse to the courts. No wonder most non-Muslims eventually “converted” to Islam. In the early 19th century the government in Algeria went so far as to sponsor piracy and the enslavement of Christians captured on the Mediterranean Sea, provoking the First and Second Barbary Wars with the United States in 1801-1805 and 1810. The last Ottoman ruler, Hussein Dey, moved Algeria from piracy to diplomacy. But in a trade dispute the Dey hit the French consul with a fly swatter, and France used this incident to justify its blockade of Algeria in 1827 and invasion in 1830.

FRANCE CONQUERS BY FORCE, THEN FLEES. Thus began 132 years of colonial government in Algeria, in which Muslims—who had relegated all non-Muslims to second-class citizens—became second-class citizens themselves. By 1880 other European nations began to see France as a rival for the rich natural resources they were discovering in Africa. They partitioned Africa, giving France almost the entire northwest third of the continent including Algeria. This colonial era came to a dramatic end in the 1950s and 60s when almost every African nation gained independence. The repressive French government in Algeria was finally overthrown after the 1954-62 war which claimed up to a million lives and forced about a million colonists to flee.

Ahmed Ben Bella was elected as the first president of independent Algeria. But he was deposed in a military coup that installed a socialist government in Algeria which ruled for over 25 years. When Islamists won the 1992 elections, the army prevented them from taking power, resulting in a civil war which took 100,000 lives. An uneasy peace arrangement began in 2000 when voters in Algeria approved of the Civil Concord. This mandated reconciliation talks between the more westernized Muslims in power and the mostly radical Muslims who oppose them. Both sides committed atrocities, and the amnesty has been offered toward offenders both in the government of Algeria and its opponents. 80% of them have accepted amnesty, meaning that the perpetrators have been favored over the victims in Algeria—including many Christians.

CHRISTIAN BREAKTHROUGHS THREATENED BY MORE PERSECUTION. Still, the tiny but persevering Christian population has borne surprising fruit over the past decade, growing to more than 100,000 as new fellowships have sprung up all over Algeria. Berber believers are reaching the unreached and showing unity with Arab and foreign believers in this otherwise ethnically divided nation. Muslims have reacted by reinstating some pre-colonial shariah laws such as the bans on proselytism and on worship outside of pre-approved church buildings. Young people under 30, who make up 65-70% of the population, are frustrated by the high unemployment and the return of shariah allowed by the government in Algeria. Many of these youth are either turning to Christ or seeking to move to Europe.

As we have said, Augustine’s approval for the use of state force against dissenting religionists set the course for future violent clashes of Muslims against Christians, as well as Muslims against Muslims. We should not be surprised, then, that the moderate Muslim-dominated government in Algeria used immediate force instead of negotiation with the radical Muslim terrorists who seized the gas plant at In Amenas—even though it resulted in dozens of deaths. The new factor is that many of the terrorists were foreigners, and many of those killed were foreign workers at a foreign-owned plant. We must ask, how many more plants in the vast and vulnerable Sahara desert will be seized? How far will this war extend beyond Algeria and North Africa to involve other nations? And can the young generation in Algeria, comprising two-thirds of the population and including Christians, overcome historical patterns and alter this perilous course? The answer to the last question is yes—through intercession in the house of prayer and concerted action. (See Prayer Alert: Keeping civil wars in Algeria and Mali from inciting world war).

Note: Augustine’s theory of just war: war is justified if it is motivated by noble purposes, aimed at correcting the far greater injustice suffered by one side, influenced by overall concern for the enemy, expected to succeed, led by appropriate authorities, and limited to only the most necessary violence—as a last resort after peaceful alternatives had failed. Once the war begins, the warriors must target soldiers not civilians, refrain from attacks that would cause excessive civilian injuries, and treat prisoners of war and defeated foes fairly.


government in Algeria, hostages, house of prayer

Related sources:

Operation World by Jason Mandryk, Biblica, 2010

The Kingdom of God in Africa by Mark Shaw, Baker 1996

A History of Christianity in Africa by Elizabeth Isichei, SPCK 1995

From Time Immemorial by Joan Peters, JKAP 1984

“History of Algeria”


Belize City House of Prayer: Roots of Civil War in Algeria

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