Christianity in Africa

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Christianity in Africa began in Egypt in the middle of the 1st century. By the end of the 2nd century it had reached the region around Carthage. Important Africans who influenced the early development of Christianity include Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, Cyprian, Athanasius and Augustine of Hippo.

The spread of Islam into North Africa reduced the size of Christian congregations as well as their number, so of the original churches, the only ones remaining are the Coptic Church in Egypt, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church in the Horn of Africa. Both the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox churches have their own distinct religious customs, a unique canon of the Bible and unique architectures. Neither of these communities of Christians in the Horn of Africa is the product of European missionary work; rather, they were founded prior to missionary work by any European country.[1]

Christianity is embraced by the majority of the population in most Southern African, Southeast African, and Central African states and others in some parts of Northeast and West Africa. The Coptic Christians make up a significant minority in Egypt. The World Book Encyclopedia has estimated that in 2002, Christians formed 40% of the continent's population, with Muslims forming 45%. In a relatively short space of time, Africa has gone from having a majority following one of its indigenous, traditional religions, to being predominantly a continent of Christians and Muslims. Since 2013, only in Togo have the majority of religious people been followers of a traditional African religion.

No official statistics currently exist for South Sudan, and some scholarly studies state that traditional African religions are more popular there than Christianity.[2] However, the December 18, 2012 Pew Forum research estimates that in 2010, 6.010 million Christians, 3.270 million traditional African religion followers, 610,000 Muslims and 50,000 unaffiliated (no known religion) people lived in South Sudan.[3] This would mean that in 2010 according to Pew Forum, about 60.46% of the population of South Sudan's 9,940,000 population were Christian while 32.9% were followers of traditional African religions. Importantly, within most self-declared Christian communities in Africa, there is significant and sustained syncretism with traditional African religious beliefs and practices.[4]


Mark the Evangelist became the first bishop of the Orthodox Church of Alexandria in about the year 43.[5] At first the church in Alexandria was mainly Greek-speaking. By the end of the 2nd century the scriptures and liturgy had been translated into three local languages. Christianity also spread in Sudan in the early 1st century, and the Nubian churches there were linked to those of Egypt.[6]

Christianity also grew in northwestern Africa (today known as the Maghreb). The churches there were linked to the Church of Rome and provided Pope Gelasius I, Pope Miltiades and Pope Victor I – all of them Christian Berbers like Saint Augustine and his mother, Saint Monica.

At the beginning of the 3rd century the church in Alexandria expanded rapidly, with five new suffragan bishoprics. At this time, the Bishop of Alexandria began to be called Pope, as the senior bishop in Egypt. In the middle of the 3rd century the church in Egypt suffered severely during the persecution under the Emperor Decius. Many Christians fled from the towns into the desert. When the persecution died down, however, some remained in the desert as hermits to pray. This was the beginning of Christian monasticism, which over the following years spread from Africa to other parts of the Christian world.

The early 4th century in Egypt began with renewed persecution under the Emperor Diocletian. In the Ethiopian/Eritrean Kingdom of Aksum, King Ezana declared Christianity the official religion after having been converted by Frumentius, resulting in the foundation of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

In these first few centuries, African Christian leaders such as Origen, Lactantius, Augustine, Tertullian, Marius Victorinus, Pachomius, Didymus the Blind, Ticonius, Cyprian, Athanasius and Cyril (along with rivals Valentinus, Plotinus, Arius and Donatus Magnus) influenced the Christian world outside Africa with responses to Gnosticism, Arianism, Montanism, Marcionism, Pelagianism and Manichaeism. Ecumenical councils were organized by them from time to time to help keep the Church unified in matters of doctrine. The world also owes to such Christians the idea of the University (after the Library of Alexandria), the understanding of the Trinity, Vetus Latina translations, methods of exegesis and biblical interpretation, monasticism, Neoplatonism, and African literary, dialectical and rhetorical traditions.[7]

Christianity in Berber Africa

The first document that allows us to understand Christianity in Berber Africa is located in the Africa of the early Christians, and dates from before the year 180 AD: the "Acts of the Martyrs scillitans". This is the record of attendance of a dozen Christians (called Scillitan Martyrs) in a village of Africa Proconsularis still not identified, in front of the proconsul of Africa.

The early history of Christianity in Africa is closely linked to the person of Tertullian. Born to pagan parents (his father was a Roman centurion and his mother was probably a Romanised Berber), he joined the Christian community in Carthage in 195 AD and became close to the local municipal elite, which protected him from repression by the authorities. Having received the priesthood, he fought in his early writings for the Christian Church to be officially recognized by the Roman Empire.

The politico-religious opinions of Tertullian caused violent conflict and persecutions: Christians were accused of endangering the Roman Empire when they refused to take part in military service (and this was done during a period which required a greater need for soldiers). Thus, Tertullian provoked sanctions by the authorities that led to killings, creating the martyrs very specific to the Christian religion.

Indeed, the historical period of the African Church begins in 180 AD with groups of martyrs. At a somewhat later date, extant writings of Tertullian told of how rapidly African Christianity had grown. It had passed the Roman military lines, and spread among the peoples to the south and southeast of the Aures mountains. About the year 200 AD there was a violent persecution at Carthage and in the provinces held by the Romans. We gain information on its various phases from the martyrdom of St. Perpetua and the treatises of Tertullian. Christianity, however, did not even then cease to make distant conquests; Christian epitaphs are to be found at Sour el Ghozlane, dated 227 AD, and at Tipasa, dated 238 AD. These dates are assured. If we rely on texts less definite we may admit that the evangelization of northern Africa began very early and was totally complete by the fifth century.

By the opening of the third century there were large Christian populations in the towns and even in the country districts, which included not only the poor, but also persons of the highest rank. A council held at Carthage about the year 220 AD was attended by eighteen bishops from the province of Numidia. Another council, held about the middle of the third century in the time of Cyprian, was attended by eighty-seven bishops. But at this period the African Church went through a very grave crisis.

The accession of Constantine found the African Church torn apart by controversies and heresies; Catholics and Donatists contended not only in polemics, but also in violent and bloody ways. A law of Constantine (318 AD) deprived the Donatists of their churches, most of which they had taken from the Catholics. They had, however, grown so powerful that even such a measure failed to crush them. In fact, they were so numerous that a Donatist council held at Carthage in 327 AD was attended by 270 bishops.

Attempts at reconciliation, suggested by the Emperor Constantius II, only widened the breach and led to armed repression, an ever-growing disquiet, and an enmity that became increasingly embittered. Yet, in the very midst of these troubles, the Primate of Carthage, Gratus, declared (in the year 349): "God has restored Africa to religious unity. "Julian's accession (361 AD) and his permission to all religious exiles to return to their homes added to the troubles of the African Church. A Donatist bishop sat in the seceded see of Carthage, in opposition to the orthodox bishop. One act of violence followed another, marking new conflicts. About this period, Optatus, Bishop of Milevi, began to combat the sect by his writings. A few years later, St. Augustine, converted at Milan, returned to his native land, and entered the lists against every kind of error. Paganism had by that time ceased to be a menace to the Church; in 399 AD its temples were closed at Carthage. Nevertheless, the energy and genius of Augustine were abundantly utilized in training the clergy and instructing the faithful, as well as in theological controversy with heretics. For forty years, from 390 to 430 AD, the Councils of Carthage (which reunited a great part of the African Episcopate), public discussions with the Donatists, sermons, homilies, and scriptural commentaries followed almost without interval – an unparalleled activity that had commensurate results.

Christian Mosaic at the "National Museum of Bardo" (Tunisia)

Pelagianism, which had made great strides in Africa, was condemned at the Council of Carthage in 412 AD. Donatism, also, and Semi-Pelagianism were stricken to death at an hour when political events of the utmost gravity changed the history and the destiny of the African Church. Conflict between Carthage and Rome on the regulation of the African Church came to the fore when Apiarius of Sicca appeal his excommunication to Rome and thus challenging the authority of Carthage. Count Boniface had summoned the Vandals to Africa in 426 AD, and by 429 AD the invasion was completed. The barbarians advanced rapidly and made themselves masters of cities and provinces. In 430 AD St. Augustine died, during the siege of Hippo; nine years later Geiseric, King of the Vandals, took possession of Carthage. Then began for the African Church an era of persecution of a kind hitherto unknown. The Vandals were Arians. Not only did they wish to establish their own Arianism, but they were bent on the destruction of Catholicism.

Churches the invasion had left standing were either transferred to the Arians or withdrawn from the Catholics and closed to public worship. The intervention of the Emperor Zeno (474-491 AD) and the conclusion of a treaty of peace with Geiseric, were followed by a transient calm. The churches were opened, and the Catholics were allowed to choose a bishop (476 AD), but the death of Geiserich, and the edict of Hunneric, in 484 AD, made matters worse than before. A contemporary writer, Victor of Vita, has told us what we know of this long history of the Vandal persecution.

During the last years of Vandal rule in Africa, St. Fulgentius, Bishop of Ruspe, exercised a fortunate influence over the princes of the Vandal dynasty, who were no longer completely barbaric, but whose culture, wholly Roman and Byzantine, equalled that of their native subjects. Yet the Vandal monarchy, which had lasted for nearly a century, seemed less firmly established than at its beginning.

The Vandal kingdom allowed the creation of some Romano-Berber states at the borders, but fell a century later, conquered by the Byzantine empire, which established an African prefecture, and later the Exarchate of Carthage. Nearly all Berbers were Christians since the third century, to the point that one of the most famous and important Christian saints was Berber: Saint Augustine. But in the Atlas mountains was still worshipped some form of paganism and idolatry when the Vandals arrived: Pope Gelasius I, a Berber born in what is now Kabylia, successfully converted to Christianity around 492 AD all the Berbers of the Aures (who were the last to defend Romanised north western-Africa with their queen Kahina from the Moslem invasion).

Indeed these Berber states are often called "Neo-Latin" because were post-Roman (meaning: no more under the Roman Empire authority), with a local and differentiated Latin language mixed with many local Berberisms, and with a Christian religion. Some of their Christian kings (like those of the "Regnum Maurorum et Romanorum") left the monuments called Djeddars. Furthermore during the fifth century the area was fully Christianized, according to historian Theodore Mommsen, and the kings were probably buried in a mausoleum called "Djeddar" in Berber. Historian Gabriel Camps thinks that some Berber kings (like Masuna and Garmul) were buried in a Djeddar near Frenda.

In 533 AD a Byzantine fleet appeared off the coast of Africa. The battle of Ad Decimum won the initiative for the invading Byzantines. The taking of Carthage, the flight of vandal king Gelimer, and the battle of Tricamarum, about the middle of December, completed their destruction and their disappearance.

The victor, Belisarius, had but to show himself in order to reconquer the greater part of the coast, and to place the cities under the authority of the Emperor Justinian. A council held at Carthage in 534 AD was attended by 220 bishops representing all the churches. It issued a decree forbidding the public exercise of Arian worship. The establishment of Byzantine rule, however, was far from restoring unity to the African Church. The Councils of Carthage brought together the bishops of Proconsular Africa, Byzacena, and Numidia, but those of Tripolitana and Mauretania were absent. Mauretania had, in fact, regained its political autonomy, during the Vandal period. A native dynasty had been set up, and the Byzantine army of occupation never succeeded in conquering a part of the country so far from their base at Carthage.

The reign of Justinian marks a sad period in the history of the African Church, due to the part taken by the clergy in the matter known as that of the Three Chapters. While one part of the episcopate wasted its time and energies in fruitless theological discussions, others failed of their duty. It was under these circumstances that Pope Gregory the Great sent men to Africa, whose lofty character contributed greatly to increase the prestige of the Roman Church. The notary Hilarus became in some sense a papal legate with authority over the African Bishops. He left them in no doubt as to their duty, instructed or reprimanded them, and summoned councils in the Pope's name. With the help of the metropolitan of Carthage, he succeeded in restoring unity, peace, and ecclesiastical discipline in the African Church, which drew strength from so fortunate a change even so surely as the See of Rome regained in respect and authority. However Justinian promoted Christianity in Berber Africa: for example, he made in Septem (actual Ceuta) an important Christian center in Mauretania Tingitana, as recent discovered ruins of a Roman basilica showed.[8]

This renewal of vigour, however, was not of long duration. The Arabs, who had conquered Egypt, made their way into Byzantine Africa. In 647 AD the Caliph Othman gave orders for a direct attack on Berber Africa, and an army that had gained a victory at Sbeitla against Byzantine and Christian Berber armies, withdrew on payment of a large ransom. Some years of respite ensued. The African Church showed its firm attachment to orthodoxy by remaining loyal to Pope Martin I (649-655 AD) in his conflict with the Emperor of Byzantium. The last forty years of the seventh century witnessed the gradual fall of the fragments of Byzantine Africa into the hands of the Arabs. The Berber, or native tribes, which before this had seemed on the way to conversion to the Gospel, passed in a short time, and without resistance, to Islam. Carthage was taken by the Arabs in 695 AD. Two years later it was re-entered by the Byzantine Patrician John, but only for a brief period; in 698 AD Hassan once more took possession of the capital of Northern Africa, destroying totally the city. He killed half the inhabitants and enslaved the other half, erasing forever in this way the main center of Greco-Roman presence and influence in the Maghreb.

After the Muslim conquest of Byzantine-ruled north Africa

Colour photograph
The basilica of Our Lady of Africa in Algiers

The conventional historical view is that the conquest of North Africa by the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate between AD 647–709 effectively ended Catholicism in Africa for several centuries.[9] The prevailing view is that the Church at that time lacked the backbone of a monastic tradition and was still suffering from the aftermath of heresies including the so-called Donatist heresy, and this contributed to the earlier obliteration of the Church in the present day Maghreb.[10] Some historians contrast this with the strong monastic tradition in Coptic Egypt, which is credited as a factor that allowed the Coptic Church to remain the majority faith in that country until around after the 14th century.

However, new scholarship has appeared that disputes this. There are reports that the Roman Catholic faith persisted in the region from Tripolitania (present-day western Libya) to present-day Morocco for several centuries after the completion of the Arab conquest by 700.[11] A Christian community is recorded in 1114 in Qal'a in central Algeria. There is also evidence of religious pilgrimages after 850 to tombs of Catholic saints outside the city of Carthage, and evidence of religious contacts with Christians of Arab Spain. In addition, calendar reforms adopted in Europe at this time were disseminated amongst the indigenous Christians of Tunis, which would have not been possible had there been an absence of contact with Rome.

Local Catholicism came under pressure when the Muslim regimes of the Almohads and Almoravids came into power, and the record shows demands made that the local Christians of Tunis convert to Islam. There are reports of Christian inhabitants and a bishop in the city of Kairouan around 1150 AD – a significant event, since this city was founded by Arab Muslims around 680 AD as their administrative center after their conquest. A letter in Catholic Church archives from the 14th century shows that there were still four bishoprics left in North Africa, admittedly a sharp decline from the over four hundred bishoprics in existence at the time of the Arab conquest.[12] Berber Christians continued to live in Tunis and Nefzaoua in the south of Tunisia up until the early 15th century, and in the first quarter of the 15th 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.[13]

By 1830, when the French came as colonial conquerors to Algeria and Tunis, local Catholicism had been extinguished. The growth of Catholicism in the region after the French conquest was built on European colonizers and settlers, and these immigrants and their descendants mostly left when the countries of the region became independent. As of the last census in Algeria, taken on 1 June 1960, there were 1,050,000 non-Muslim civilians (mostly Catholic) in Algeria (10 percent of the total population including 130,000 Algerian Jews).[14]

Colour photograph
Roman Catholic Cathedral of Rabat

In 2009, the UNO counted 45,000 Roman Catholics and 50,000 to 100,000 Protestants in the Algeria. Conversions to Christianity have been most common in Kabylie, especially in the wilaya of Tizi-Ouzou.[15] In that wilaya, the proportion of Christians has been estimated to be between 1% and 5%.

In Morocco The expatriate Christian community (Roman Catholic and Protestant) consists of 5,000 practicing members, although estimates of Christians residing in the country at any particular time range up to 25,000. Most Christians reside in the Casablanca, Tangier and Rabat urban areas.[16] The majority of Christians in Morocco are foreigners, although Voice of the Martyrs reports there is a growing number of native Moroccans (45,000) converting to Christianity, especially in the rural areas. Many of the converts are baptized secretly in Morocco’s churches.[17]

The Christian community in Tunisia, composed of indigenous residents, Tunisians of Italian and French descent, and a large group of native-born citizens of Berber and Arab descent, numbers 25,000 and is dispersed throughout the country.[18]

Current status

Christianity is now one of the two most widely practiced religions in Africa. There has been tremendous growth in the number of Christians in Africa, coupled with a relative decline in adherence to traditional African religions. Only nine million Christians were in Africa in 1900, but by the year 2000, there were an estimated 380 million Christians there. Much of the recent Christian growth in Africa has been due to African evangelism rather than European missionaries.

According to a 2006 Pew Forum on Religion and Public life study, 147 million African Christians were "renewalists" (Pentecostals and Charismatics).[19] According to David Barrett, most of the 552,000 congregations in 11,500 denominations throughout Africa in 1995 are unknown in the West.[20] Christianity in Africa shows tremendous variety, from the ancient forms of Oriental Orthodox Christianity in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Eritrea to the newest African-Christian denominations of Nigeria, a country that has experienced large conversion to Christianity in recent times. Several syncretistic and messianic sections have formed throughout much of the continent, including the Nazareth Baptist Church in South Africa and the Aladura churches in Nigeria. There are also fairly widespread populations of Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Some experts predict the shift of Christianity's center from the European industrialized nations to Africa and Asia in modern times. Yale University historian Lamin Sanneh stated that "African Christianity was not just an exotic, curious phenomenon in an obscure part of the world, but that African Christianity might be the shape of things to come."[21] The statistics from the World Christian Encyclopedia (David Barrett) illustrate the emerging trend of dramatic Christian growth on the continent and forecast that in 2025, there will be 633 million Christians in Africa.[22]

See also


  1. African Christianity
  2. G. Arnold, Book Review: Douglas H. Johnson, The Root Causes of Sudan's Civil Wars. African Journal of Political Science, Vol.8 No. 1, 2003. p.147
  3. Pew Forum on Religion
  4. Rosalind Shaw, Charles Stewart, Syncretism/Anti-Syncretism: The Politics of Religious Synthesis (1994),
  5. Eusebius of Caesarea, the author of Ecclesiastical History in the 4th century, states that St. Mark came to Egypt in the first or third year of the reign of Emperor Claudius, i.e. 41 or 43 A.D. "Two Thousand years of Coptic Christianity", Otto F.A. Meinardus, p.28.
  6. Jakobielski, S. Christian Nubia at the Height of its Civilization (Chapter 8). UNESCO. University of California Press. San Francisco, 1992. ISBN 9780520066984
  7. Oden, Thomas C. How Africa shaped the Christian Mind, IVP 2007.
  8. Ceuta's Roman basilica video, with related article
  10. "The Disappearance of Christianity from North Africa in the Wake of the Rise of Islam", C. J. Speel, II Church History, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Dec., 1960), pp. 379-397
  11. "The last native Christian communities of North Africa" (in French)
  14. Cook, Bernard A. (2001). Europe since 1945: an encyclopedia. New York: Garland. p. 398. ISBN 0-8153-4057-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. *(French) Sadek Lekdja, Christianity in Kabylie, Radio France Internationale, 7 mai 2001
  16. International Religious Freedom Report 2008, U.S Department of State
  17. Converted Christians in Morocco Need Prayers
  18. International Religious Freedom Report 2010: Tunisia. United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (November 17, 2010). This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  19. "Gospel Riches, Africa's rapid embrace of prosperity Pentecostalism provokes concern and hope", Christianity Today, July 2007
  20. See "Ecclesiastical Cartography and the Invisible Continent: The Dictionary of African Christian Biography" at
  21. "Historian Ahead of His Time", Christianity Today, February 2007
  22. World Council of Churches Report, August 2004

External links