North Africa was an early cradle of
Indeed Christianity's links with Africa started nearly two thousand years
ago, just weeks after the birth of Jesus when according to the bible,
the holy family fled the wrath of King Herod.
"An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in
a dream saying: 'Arise, take the young child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I bring you word, for Herod will seek the young child
to destroy him.
When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night and departed
for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled,
which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, 'Out of Egypt
I called my Son."
Matthew's Gospel, Chapter 3, verses 13-15.
to St Mathew's Gospel, Chapter 3, Verse 13-15
Christianity spread to North Africa less than 150 years after the death
of Christ. Christian beliefs were introduced by missionaries from Jerusalem
and spread among the Jews of Alexandria, on the Egyptian Coast, some time
in first century AD or second century. There, the new faith was adopted
by the Greek community from the Jews. Christianity spread west, and was
taken up across North Africa. It reached as far as modern-day Morocco,
where it was enthusiastically embraced by the Berber people. It is quite
possible that Christianity came to Africa before it came to Britain and
other regions in Northern Europe.
CHRISTIANITY AS DISSENT
Under the Greeks and during the early years
of Roman rule, Egyptians had worshipped their traditional gods as they
had during the time of the Pharaohs. Some historians believe that there
were elements within such traditional religion that made people receptive
to the Christian message.
"Consider how the pharaoh Akhenaton more than
one thousand years before Christianity taught and preached how there was
one creator for the universe. Look at the statues in ancient Egypt…there
is the sign of the cross which was engraved upon it. It was called the
ankh - the sign of life, of life after death.
Even the idea of the trinity…in Memphis there was the trinity of Isis,
Osiris and Horus, all combined into one. So many of the teachings of Christianity
were not foreign at all."
Megially, former Assistant Professor at the universities of Alexandria
to a Coptic mass, recorded at the eleventh century Church of St Mary in
Cairo, also known as the Hanging Church
The branch of Christianity that developed in Egypt was named after the
language spoken by the mass of the Egyptian population - Coptic. Two thousand
years later it is still used in Church liturgy.
The early Christian fathers in Egypt developed a strong monastic tradition.
There were hundreds of monasteries throughout the country as well as cells
and caves occupied by hermits. An anonymous fourth century writer observed:
"There is no town or village in Egypt that is not surrounded by hermitages
as if by walls and the people depend on their prayers as if on God himself,
through them the world is kept going."
Christianity was embraced as the religion of dissent and opposition to
oppressive Roman rule. It was also, under the teaching of the theologian
Origen, a religion emphasising wisdom and physical hardship. Martyrdom
became a feature of Christian communities.
One of the earliest documented martyrs was Perpetua, a twenty-year-old
wife and mother born in Carthage near Tunis. In 203 AD, she was sentenced
to death for her beliefs and her refusal to make a sacrifice to the Roman
"We walked up to the prisoner's dock. All
the others when questioned admitted their guilt. Then, when it came to
my turn, my father appeared with my son, dragged me from the step, and
said: 'Perform the sacrifice - have pity on your baby!'
Hilarianus the governor…. said to me: 'Have pity on your father's grey
head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare
of the Emperors'.
'I will not' I retorted.
'Are you a Christian?' said Hilarianus.
And I said: 'Yes, I am'…
Then Hilarianus passed sentence on all of us; we were condemned to the
beasts, and we returned to prison in high spirits."
account of her last days, taken from Acts of the Christian Martyrs.
to a BBC dramatisation of the martyrdom of Perpetua
From the early fourth century, under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, the
attacks became more widespread and violent. Churches were destroyed, bibles
burned, and Christians faced imprisonment, torture and death.
DIVISIONS WITHIN CHRISTIANITY
of the Christians ceased in 312, when the Roman Emperor Constantine declared
Christianity the official religion of the Empire. By now, different forms
of Christian belief were beginning to emerge and diverse groups of worshippers
were beginning to congregate. The
most long lasting split over doctrine centred on the nature of God and
developed in 451. The Church in Constantinople (modern Istanbul), from
where the Roman Empire was now administered, held to the idea that God
was both human - in the form of Jesus - and divine. In contradiction to
this, the church in North Africa said God was one indivisible unity and
wholly divine. This Monophysite belief became the central tenet of the
Church in North Africa, which subsequently became known as the Coptic
the Western regions of North Africa, a more militant, rigid form of Christianity
grew up. It was unforgiving of those who collaborated with Roman persecutors.
This form of Christianity was known as Donatism and it became identified
by the newly Christianised Byzantine authorities as a heresy and equated
with dissent and rebellion. It was outlawed by
St Augustine of Hippo
in his capacity as Bishop of Hippo (in
modern Algeria). When Islam came to North Africa in 639, Christian communities
were weakened by these divisions and so were less able to resist conversion
to the new faith.