Middle East Resources

The New Christians of North Africa & The Insider Movement

By Rev. Bassam M. Madany

St Francis Magazine, a missiological journal dedicated to the study of “Religions and mission in the Arab world,” devoted its August 2009 issue to the subject of the Insider Movement. The Rev Dr John Stringer, editor of the magazine, wrote this Introduction to the ten articles that dealt with this subject:

“The Insider Movement, also called C5 or Messianic Islam, has been a pervasive, outspoken presence in the world of missions for the last three decades. Missiological journals, Christian magazines and newspapers have been awash in anecdotes from the field extolling this purportedly new, biblical, approach to ministry. At times, it has seemed almost unthinkable to offer criticism of this broad movement. That is why this entire issue is dedicated to a detailed examination of the Insider Movement, its theology, methodology and tactics.

“Is the heart of the Christian faith a matter of making an individual choice? Is it fundamentally just a matter of having a personal love for Jesus? Or is the Church, organized and visible, at the heart of God's plan for the world? The subject sounds alarm bells. Evangelical Christians become increasingly susceptible to the siren song of post-structuralist (some might say anti-) postmodernism and liberalism, lacking a foundation in a theology that biblically respects the historic Church as the body of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

I would like to contribute a further perspective to the discussion of the Insider Movement, which would shed light on the way Muslims who convert to the Christian faith view themselves. Materials that have been appearing lately on reformist Arabic websites reporting on this phenomenon are quite intriguing. The European media have picked up on the conversion stories as well. One might ask why those promoting the Insider Movement seem so unaware of these reports about converts from Islam to Christianity. The conversion stories they document, do not fit the schematics of their own paradigm. The reformist Arabic websites and the European press indicate that the converts are bold and forthright in their marturia and enthusiasm for their new-found faith.

It was around three years ago, that I came across the use of the term “Masihiyyoo al-Maghreb” (The Christians of North Africa,) in the Arab media. That indicated the presence of a considerable number of North African Muslims who have embraced the Christian faith. In March of 2007, a conference was convened in Zurich, Switzerland, by “Copts United,” under the leadership of an Egyptian Christian engineer named Adli Yousef Abadir, and chaired by Dr. Shaker al-Nabulsi, a Jordanian Muslim intellectual. The theme of the conference was “The Defense of Minorities and Women.” The Arabic online daily Elaph reported on the proceedings of the conference.

One of the lectures was entitled “The Christians of the Maghreb under the Rule of Islamists,” where it must be noted that the Maghrebi converts to Christianity were called, “Masihiyyoo al-Maghreb” and not “followers of ‘Issa,” the way the Insider Movement likes to refer to converts from Islam. Another term referred to them as “Al-Masihyyoon al-Judod” i.e. the New Christians in the countries of the Arab Maghreb. Here are translated excerpts from that lecture delivered in 2007 at the Zurich Conference. 

“The New Christians’ phenomenon throughout the Arab Maghreb has come to the attention of the media. For example, the weekly journal, Jeune Afrique, devoted three reports on this subject with respect to Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. In March 2005, the French daily Le Monde devoted a complete report about this topic. And Al-‘Arabiyya TV channel telecast two reports on the subject that had been recorded in the Kabyle district of Algeria.

Jeune Afrique estimated that the number of people who have embraced Christianity in Tunisia was around 500, belonging to three churches. A report on the website of “Al-Islam al-Yawm” prepared by Lidriss el-Kenbouri, and dated 23 April 2005, estimated the number of European evangelists in Morocco to be around 800, and that quite often, their evangelistic efforts are successful. The report further added that around 1,000 Moroccans had left Islam during 2004. The magazine “Al-Majalla,” in its No. 1394 issue, claimed that the number of New Christians in Morocco was around 7,000; perhaps the exact number may be as high as 30,000.

“The report that appeared in the French daily Le Monde claimed that during 1992, between 4,000 and 6,000 Algerians embraced Christianity in the Kabyle region of Algeria. By now, their numbers may be in the tens of thousands. However, the authorities are mum about this subject, as an Algerian government official put it; ‘the number of those who embraced Christianity is a state secret.’”

The lecturer went on to refer to the newspaper report and mentioned several factors that led people to convert to Christianity:

“When we enquired from those who had come over to the Christian faith to learn about the factors that led to their conversion, they mentioned several factors, among them was ‘The violence of the fundamentalist Islamist movements.’ A Christian evangelist working in Algeria reported: ‘These terrible events shocked people greatly. It proved that Islam was capable of unleashing all that terror, and those horrific massacres! Even children were not spared during the uprising of the Islamists! Women were raped! Many people began to ask: Where is Allah? Some Algerians committed suicide! Others lost their minds; others became atheists, and still others chose the Messiah!’”  

“Quite often, the ‘New Christians’ testified to the fact that what they discovered in their new faith was love; it formed another factor in their conversion. These are some of their words: ‘We found out that in Christianity, God is love.’ ‘God loves all people.’ ‘What attracted us to Christianity is its teaching that God is love.’”

It is quite evident that the testimonies of these new Maghrebi Christians are extremely important. The Christian message came to them through various means, but it struck them as a word of a loving God in search for His lost sheep. They embraced the Messiah who died on the cross, and rose again for their justification. Notwithstanding all the difficulties that they were to face in the future, they clung to the Biblical Injil that had brought them peace with God, and the gift of eternal life.

The link to this Arabic-language report that dealt with the plight of Maghrebi Christians should the Islamists succeed in taking over the reigns of government is: http://www.elaph.com/ElaphWeb/ElaphWriter/2007/4/225336.htm.

Almost two years after the Zurich Conference that dealt with the plight of Maghrebi Christians should the Islamists succeed in taking over the reigns of government;  I read the following report posted on 22 January, 2009, on the Arabic-language Aafaq (Horizons) website. It detailed the news of young Algerians who have converted to Christianity because they had become disaffected with Islam. Here are excerpts from the report datelined Algiers:

This photo of a worship service accompanied the Aafaq report

“Some Amazigh websites have disclosed that many Algerian young people have left Islam and adopted Christianity. They confessed that they did so due to the ugliness of the crimes perpetrated by the Salafist ‘Da’wa and Combat Movement’ against civilians. They were tremendously disappointed and disenchanted with Islam, claiming that it was responsible for nurturing these Jihadists who have been terrorizing and murdering innocent people.

“The website noted that the spread of Christianity in Algeria has even reached areas that were entirely under the influence of the Islamists, such as in eastern Algeria. Furthermore, the Christian expansion in the country was not due exclusively to missionary organizations, as certain Islamic groups claim. The reason is to be found in Islam itself. It has been associated in the minds of the youth with Irhab, assassinations, and crimes against innocent people. They remember that many of the crimes were committed during the 1990s, and occurred in distant villages of Algeria when young women were abducted, taken to the mountains as “captives,” gang-raped, and then killed by having their throats slit. Such horrific scenes took place in Algeria over several years and resulted in the very word “Islamic” becoming synonymous with Irhab!

“The report added that in Islam a woman is regarded as an enemy that must be fought with all means. She must be punished for the simplest mistake, while men go unpunished when they commit similar misdeeds. Thus, a woman is held responsible for the simplest act, and is liable to be put to death, since she is by nature a “Shaytana” i.e. a female Satan. This seriously misguided and misogynist view of women causes young men to worry about their own sisters, and be anxious about their future daughters as well.

“It went on to explain that the Irhabis who committed those awful crimes against women held to a view of Islam that took for granted that discrimination between the sexes is normal. They believe in the notion that the bed is the sole reason for a woman’s existence. In northern Algeria alone, 5,000 women were raped. This Amazigh source regards these radicals as ‘Allah’s guards on earth’ who refuse to act as civilized human beings.”

The website ended its comments on the alienation of Algerian youth by stating “that as long as Islam is unable to get out of its closed circle, and evolve according to the requirements of a civil society that is open to love, tolerance, and coexistence with others; it will continue to alienate more young people. In the Providence of God it has transpired that the despicable actions of the Irhabis in the bloody and dark decade of the 1990s have contributed to more than 20,000 Algerians converting to the Christian faith.”

Reporting on the same topic of conversions to Christianity that are taking place in Algeria, on 24 April, 2009, the Aafaq website posted an article, with this headline: Religious Leaders in Algeria Are Demanding the Punishment of the Apostates.

Here is my translation of the news item:

“An Algerian policeman and his daughter have made a public confession that they have embraced Christianity. The policeman’s announcement precipitated a tremendous amount of discussion and argument in Algeria, causing the religious authorities to demand that the police department dismiss him from his position since his actions proved him to be an Apostate, a Murtad.

“The policemen declared to the Algerian newspaper al-Nahar that his previous life as a Muslim was filled with anxieties and the absence of peace of mind. He added that the radical Islamist movements that had massacred women and children caused him to become fearful of Islam which he held responsible for the bloodshed. His life was caught up in a deep struggle that eventually led him to embrace Christianity, that according to him, ‘has given me peace of mind.’

“As to the daughter of the policeman, she explained that the reason she embraced Christianity  was due to her feeling that Islam treated women as maids and concubines, only to be sexually exploited by men. Muslim men regard women only from a physical point of view. Now, having embraced Christianity, she began to feel as a dignified human being. Her decision is final, and she does not regret it at all.

“The Algerian religious authority reacted swiftly by declaring that Irtidad (Apostasy) is tantamount to becoming a Kafir (Unbeliever,) and thus becomes subject to capital punishment unless an apostate repents by returning to Islam. It is estimated that there are around 10,000 Christians, most of whom live in the Kabyle district of Tizi Ouzou. Some unofficial sources claim that the number of Christians in Algeria is more than 100,000; they are to be found all over the country, especially in the west of Algeria around Oran and Mostaganem, most of these converts are young men and women. They claim that the reason that prompted them to embrace Christianity was Islam’s responsibility for murder, terror, and rape, as perpetrated by the Islamist groups who, in 1992 started their Jihad against civilians with the hope of getting closer to Allah!”

It is noteworthy that both the policeman and his daughter openly confessed that they had embraced Christianity, using the Arabic word al-Masihiyya and not another Arabic term such as the Qur’anic “Nasraniyya.” The word Masihiyya is used by Arabic-speaking Christians throughout the Middle East. To embrace Christianity and publicly announce it is a courageous act of the “New Maghrebi Christians!”

The information gleaned from Arabic-language sources on the phenomenon of the “New Maghrebi Christians,” is extremely important. Western Christians are being told by some “missiologists,” that Muslims converting to the Lord Jesus Christ, need not call themselves “Masihiyyoon,” nor stop their former Islamic practices such as attending the Friday services at the mosque, or fasting during Ramadan. This novel “missionary” theory is being offered as a “quick fix” to solve the problem of the paucity of fruits in missions to Muslims.

I risk being regarded as an extremely judgmental person when I describe the Insider’s missiology as a purely Western construct, that manifests a radical discontinuity with the missiology of the great missionaries of the past, from St. Francis of Assisi and Raymond Lull in the Middle Ages, down to the days of the pioneers of the 19th and 20th centuries such as Henry Jessup, Cornelius Van Dyck, Eli Smith, Samuel Zwemer, and J. W. Sweetman. As an Eastern Christian who spent most of my life bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to the followers of Islam, I find it ironic that the Insider Movement, while intending to be “culturally sensitive”, becomes in the final analysis a rather imperialistic, even hegemonic effort. Yet, this attempt to sell a new genre of missionary theory is being implicitly rejected by those brave New Maghrebi Christians. Both they and those who report about them in the Arab press, use the term “Masihiyyoon,” as a testimony to their solidarity with other Arabic-speaking Christians, and as full members of the “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church,” in the words of the Nicene Creed.

It is my fervent hope that we pay more attention to the Biblical directives on missions, at the very time when they are being undermined by the advocates of the Insider Movement. We should never forget that notwithstanding the Jewish and Gentile outright rejection of the gospel of the cross, Paul did not hesitate to proclaim it. “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but for us who are being saved, it is the power of God, (dunamis Theou estin.)” (I Corinthians 1:18) The basis of our salvation is the person and redemptive work of Jesus Christ; and its instrumental means is the kerygma, i.e., the Word of the Cross, whether it is formally preached by a minister of the Gospel, or given as a marturia (testimony) by a Christian. Paul expanded on this basic missionary doctrine in verse 21: “For since in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not know Him, it pleased God, through the foolishness of the preached message (kerygmatos) to save those who believe.”

Indeed, I cannot hide my joy when I hear news about the rebirth of the Christian Church in North Africa. I praise God for the boldness of these new Christians who are not ashamed of the Cross of their Savior, but place its symbol in the humble meeting rooms where they worship Him. They show in a concrete manner that they are “unashamed of the Injeel,” since it is the power of God that they had experienced in their own lives when He enabled them to leave Islam, and join the great company of the Masihiyyoon (Christians). He will also preserve them should the Islamist forces manage to take over the lands of the Maghreb.