LAST CHRISTIANS OF NORTH-WEST AFRICA:
Often called the Maghreb, North-West Africa is today divided from west to east into three countries, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Two thousand years ago the area was inhabited by a people called the Berbers, but when the region was conquered by the Roman Empire, it was also colonized by Roman settlers.
Following settlement by the Jewish Diaspora and then the preaching of the Gospel, by the second century the area had started to become a centre of Latin-speaking Orthodoxy. Gradually, both Roman settlers and Romanized Berbers became Christian. In this way the region was to produce figures such as the Church writer Tertullian (c 155 - c 202), the martyr St Cyprian of Carthage (+ 258), the Righteous Monica, her son the philosopher Blessed Augustine, Bishop of Hippo I (+ 430) (1), the martyr St Julia of Carthage (5th century) and many other saints of God.
In the early centuries the Church here was also to be much shaken and divided by various heresies and schisms. There was fanatical Donatism from the fourth century onwards, Manicheanism which so tempted the pagan Augustine, and then Arianism brought by the invading Germanic Vandals in the fifth century. This dissidence and the ensuing schisms were much coloured by ethnic tensions between the wealthier Roman settlers and the poorer native Berbers, some of whom for ethnic and social reasons wished to differentiate themselves from the colonists.
Thus, the heresies and schisms of the region were much conditioned by politically-motivated nationalism. The process here was therefore similar to the rise of the ethnic heresies of Monophysitism and Nestorianism of the Copts in North-East Africa and the Semites in the Middle East. Nevertheless, in those areas Orthodoxy survived, whereas in North-West Africa, where there were once hundreds of Orthodox dioceses and bishops, today there are none. What happened? Let us look and see what we can learn from this tragedy for today.
The beginning of the end of Orthodoxy in North-West Africa came in the year 647 with the arrival from the east of the first Arab invaders, bringing Islam with them. The capture of St Cyprian's great Christian Metropolia of Carthage in 698 and the gradual Islamization of dissident native Berbers followed. For the Orthodox, Islam was (as it still is) a Christian heresy, or rather a heresy of a heresy. Therefore, for political and ethnic Berber dissidents, Islam was just another opportunity to be independent of Roman colonial administration. However, this still does not explain why here in North-West Africa, Orthodoxy did not survive, unlike in Egypt and the Middle East, where native Orthodox Christianity has survived to this day. When and why then did Orthodoxy disappear in North-West Africa?
Undoubtedly, the main cause was the progressive emigration of Christians of colonial origin, who sought refuge from Islamic taxes elsewhere. Many of them had interests, property and family in other countries of the Western Mediterranean. In a word, they had somewhere else to go. Thus, on the capture of Carthage in 698, there was a huge exodus to Sicily, Spain and elsewhere in the Mediterranean. This exodus especially affected the educated elite, including churchmen, many of whom were not of native Berber origin, but were descendants of the Latin-speaking settlers of Roman times. This emigration continued in the eighth century. Some were even to settle as far north as Germany, as is mentioned in a letter of Pope Gregory II (715-731) to St Boniface.
Nevertheless, many Christians stayed on in North-West Africa throughout the eighth century and relations between Muslims and the remaining Christians, who by now often belonged to the same Berber race, were mainly cordial. Letters from the Christian Maghreb to Rome from the ninth century prove that Christianity was still a living faith at that time too. Although in the tenth century a reference to forty episcopal towns must be more historic rather than real, nevertheless Orthodoxy continued and several bishops and dioceses were active (2). Relations continued with the Patriarchal See in Rome and towards the end of the century, under Pope Benedict VII (974-983), a certain priest called James was sent to Rome to be consecrated Archbishop of Carthage. However, it is from this end of the tenth century that we hear that Christians are abandoning even the local form of Latin, and as in the Middle East, are using Arabic to communicate.
Unlike in North-East Africa and the Middle East, it is in the eleventh century that Orthodoxy finally begins to disappear in the Maghreb. Communities become isolated and ever smaller. For example, the church in Kairouan in Tunisia disappears from history in 1046 with the victory of militant Muslims. A second exodus occurs now, further weakening the Christian presence. In a letter from the Pope of Rome dated 17 December 1053, we hear that there are only five bishops left in all the Maghreb and that they are to recognize Thomas, Archbishop of Carthage as their Metropolitan. Two other bishops, Peter and John, perhaps of Tlemcen in Algeria or Gafsa in Tunisia, are mentioned, but we do not even know the names of the other two bishops at this time. By 1073 the Archbishop of Carthage is called Cyriacus, and there are now only two bishops left in all of North-West Africa. By 1076 he was alone and another bishop, Servandus, for Tunis, had to be consecrated in Rome.
These are the last communications that we have between the Christian Maghreb and Rome, which was by now in any case undergoing its own Gregorian Revolution. From this time on it is clear that surviving Christian communities are ever smaller and fewer, as emigration continues. With the capture of the Christian centre of Tunis in 1159 by the militant Muslim leader Abd al-Mu'min, who in 1160 also chased the Normans from what is now Tunisia, there was a further weakening. Without the protection of the Normans, a third exodus of Christians, following that of the end of the seventh century and the mid-eleventh century, now occurred.
Without monastic centres and writers, the Christians of the Maghreb faced assimilation. Unlike in the Middle East, where there were great figures like St John Damascene, there was no-one to argue the Orthodox cause with understanding of Islam, its culture and its language. There are no literary monuments, no Patristic figures, writing in either Latin or Arabic, from this period. The old Orthodox culture of North-West Africa was disappearing. True, even after the eleventh century, isolated survivals continued. Thus a Christian community is recorded in 1114 in Qal'a in central Algeria. In the mid-twelfth century an Africanized Latin was still being spoken by Orthodox in Gafsa in the south of Tunisia - at a time when Latin was nowhere spoken in Western Europe. And in 1194 a church and community dedicated to the Mother of God is recorded in Nefta, in the south of Tunisia (3).
In the thirteenth century, the apogee of Papal power, Spanish and Italians tried to conquer North-West Africa for Catholicism, as the Spanish had done in the Iberian Peninsula, and convert the Arab-speaking Muslims. However, importing Dominicans and other Catholics and setting up tiny chapels on the coastal fringes of the Maghreb led them nowhere. Not only did they fail to convert Muslims, but some of these imported Catholics within a few years themselves became Muslim (4). Moreover, these new religious imports had no contact whatsoever with the few remaining native Christians of the far older Orthodox Tradition. The latter were faithful, not to the new medieval Catholicism, but to the ancient Orthodox life of North-West Africa.
Thirteenth and fourteenth century Catholicism came from a different planet from that of historic Maghreban Orthodoxy. Thus, even though Berber Christians continued to live in Tunis and Nefzaoua in the south of Tunisia up until the early fifteenth century, they did not recognize the new Catholicism. In the first quarter of the fifteenth century, we even read that the native Christians of Tunis, though much assimilated, extended their church, perhaps because the last Christians from all over the Maghreb had gathered there (5). Moreover, this is the last reference to native Christianity in North-West Africa. Tunis seems to have been the last citadel from over twelve hundred years of Orthodoxy in North-West Africa. With assimilation in the sea of Islam, native Christianity now died out all over the Maghreb.
Enfeebled by ethnic and social division, weakened by the emigration of their elite and deprived of monastic life, not persecuted as such but nevertheless reduced by Islam to second-class citizens, isolated from the outside world, the Orthodox of the Maghreb were over seven centuries assimilated into the Muslim universe. In about 1400, after 700 years of faithfulness, the lamp of Orthodoxy in North-West Africa went out through lack of oil. It left vestiges only in folklore and language. For example, to this day the Touareg word for 'sacrifice' is 'tafaske', derived from the Latin word for Easter 'Pascha'.
From their tragic history, we can learn various lessons for today:
Firstly, we can learn of the need for Christians of different nationalities to work together in justice, without treating each other as second-class citizens. Whether they are Roman or Berber, Greek or African, Ukrainian or Romanian, Russian or English, they must treat one another as Orthodox Christians, avoiding divisions, putting their Faith, and not their ethnicity, first.
Secondly, we can learn of the vital importance of monastic life and the spiritual and intellectual training given there for clergy, thus ensuring the future survival of the Faith. A local Church can survive even with emigration, providing that it has a monastic basis. Whether, it is in North-West Africa or modern Western Europe, the United States or Australia, a Church without monastic life is a Church destined to close.
Thirdly, we can learn that to oppose the heterodox counter-culture surrounding us, we must first understand it and explain our views in terms and language which it can understand. Whether it is in Arabic or English, French or German, Spanish or Portuguese, a Church which does not speak the local language and understand the local culture, is a Church whose young are doomed to assimilation.
Finally, we can learn that it is vital for Orthodox not to become isolated from one another. If Orthodox have contact with other Orthodox, especially in other countries, they are more likely to remain Orthodox, remaining faithful to the Tradition, resisting local assimilation through uniatization and other forms of secularism.
May the Saints of North-West Africa, led by St Cyprian, protect us!
1 Now called Annaba. In 1963 Matushka was the last Christian to be baptized in St Anne's church in Blessed Augustine's City of Annaba, before it was destroyed the very next day by Muslim bulldozers.
2 See P. 332 of Le Christianisme maghrébin (LCM) by Mohamed Talbi in Indigenous Christian Communities in Islamic Lands, M. Gervers and R. Bikhazi, Toronto, 1990. I am indebted to this valuable article, which is largely based on Arabic sources, for much of this article.
3 LCM, Pp. 338-9
4 LCM, Pp. 342 and 346
LCM, Pp. 344-45