Five reasons why no large body of Christendom exists in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia Minor

Students of missionary movements are accustomed to reading about pagan lands that became Christian through sustained evangelistic effort. Rarely, though, do they find the story of a major part of the world that, though once almost solidly Christian, after centuries of brilliant growth and witness lost its faith and accepted another.

Both church and secular history record that from the third to the seventh century there were many Christian churches throughout large areas of North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. But no large body of Christendom exists in these lands today. There has been much speculation about why the Church vanished in much of this vast area, and further investigation is needed. Our chief concern in this study will be with the North African church; the wider area of the Middle East and Asia Minor is included, however, because these are the primary areas of early Christian expansion.

The Rise Of The North African Church

One tradition holds that the first church in North Africa was founded at Cyrene (modern Tripoli) by Simon, who bore Jesus’ cross. His two sons, Rufus and Alexander (Mark 15:21), may have been leaders in that church. Other leaders came fleeing from the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century, and still others followed from Asia. Christianity spread rapidly throughout North Africa.

Besides being strong in numbers, the North African church produced three of the greatest churchmen and theologians of Christendom in the early centuries: Tertullian, skilled apologist of the faith in the second century; Cyprian, dynamic churchman and administrator of the third century; and Augustine, profound theologian and saint of the fourth century.

So vigorous was the North African church that Tertullian (145–220) could boldly say in addressing the Senate at Carthage:

We grow up in greater numbers as often as we are cut down by you. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. We … have filled every place belonging to you—cities, islands, castles, towns, assemblies; your very camp and companies, palace, senate forum; we leave you your temples only [Tertullian, “Apology XXXVII,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. by Roberts and Donaldson (Eerdmans, 1963), Vol. III].

Tertullian was succeeded by Cyprian (200–258), under whose able leadership the Christian community greatly increased. He was banished by the Emperor Valerian in 257 and beheaded a year later. After Cyprian’s death, paganism made its last sustained effort to save itself from extinction. The terrible Diocletian persecutions broke out in 303 and lasted ten years. The horrors of these persecutions, which the church at Carthage quenched in its martyr blood, defy description. The church’s matchless exhibition of grace under pressure was the irresistible force over which paganism broke itself to pieces. Unquestionably, Christianity experienced its finest years during its first three centuries.

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Augustine became Bishop of Hippo in 395. Although his church had already been racked by the Donatist controversy for eight years, it was still more vigorous and had more authority and learning than either the church of Alexandria or the church at Rome. Even at the time of the Vandal invasion (429), when the church was declining as a result of the Donatist schism, the North African church still had 500 dioceses, or more than one-fourth of all Christendom.

The Decline Of The Church

Despite its history of strong leadership, fine scholarship, and numerical strength, the North African church collapsed like a house of cards before the forces of Islam in the seventh century, leaving scarcely a trace of its former glory. Thirteen centuries later, the account of this fall makes strange reading. Of the Middle East, Christians of all faiths have been estimated at scarcely 10 million. Why did multitudes who had once proclaimed their faith in Christ—and whose churches had held on to this faith in face of severe persecution during the first three centuries—desert it before the onrush of Islam?

Some of the commonly offered answers to this question are inaccurate. The simplest and probably the oldest is the belief that the Muslims forced the Christians to accept Islam at sword’s point, but there is little factual basis for this popular claim. Christians were not only allowed to retain their faith; they were often encouraged to do so. True, they were not accepted as citizens on equal terms with Muslims; but since they, like the Jews and later the Zoroastrians, were known as “people of the Book” because they possessed Scriptures, the prophet Muhammad assigned them a special status and called them dhimmis, or “protected peoples.”

Christians did suffer severe discrimination, however, though their lives were guaranteed. The Muslims required them to wear a patch of distinctive color on their clothing as a mark of inferiority. High taxes were imposed, they could not marry Muslims, most official posts were closed to them, they could not build new churches nor ring church bells, and they could not ride donkeys in the streets lest it make them taller than a passing Muslim (see T. W. Arnold, The Preaching of Islam [Constable, 1913], pp. 57–59). But while such humiliation was galling, it could have become a glory rather than a shame. Earlier, the Romans and Persians had killed countless Christians; yet the Christians had multiplied. But in the seventh century, they were scoffed at and they dwindled away.

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A second common but equally dubious explanation is the claim that the Muslim Law of Apostasy made it impossible for Christians to maintain their strength. This law, which is still valid though rarely enforced, provided for one-way conversion only. A person could convert to Islam from Christianity or Judaism, but never from Islam to any other religion, on penalty of death. Yet in Persia before the rise of Islam, a similar law did not prevent the early expansion of Christianity.

Oversimplified explanations for the failure of Christianity under Islam abound. We must search for deeper internal causes.

Some Factors In The Decline And Fall

First, the Scriptures were never translated into the languages of the people. The people were taught by Latin scholars, working through translators, who explained the Latin Scriptures to the Berbers of the interior and the Punic-speaking inhabitants of the coast. There is the strong possibility that, if the faith of the native populations had been nourished on the Scriptures in their own languages, it would have become strong enough to enable these hardy people to maintain their faith and even propagate it in face of crushing odds. In Egypt, where Christians had to meet the full force of the Muslim advance, the Coptic Church had given its people the Scriptures in the vernacular by 400, and today the Coptic Church is alive and active. The church in Armenia, which had its own Scriptures by 410, survived not only the Muslim invasion but also, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, persecutions unparalleled in history at the hands of the Turks. The greatest historical justification for the American and British Bible Societies is found in the tragic story of the church in North Africa and the Middle East.

A second reason for the decline of Christianity in North Africa and much of the Middle East is that the Eastern church lost its sense of the saving grace of Christ. The heart of the Christian Gospel was gradually buried under a growing sacramental system accompanied by sacerdotal control. By the fourth century, many people were already beginning to lose the realization that Christ was their Saviour and the Friend of sinners. The Christological controversies that racked the church in the fifth and sixth centuries, resulting in the splitting off of the Monophysite groups from the main body of orthodox Christians, are another major cause for the disintegration of the church. Space permits us only to recognize this strife as a factor. (The subject has been well treated by Hermann Sasse in his article, “Why Did Churches Become Mosques in the East?,” CHRISTIANITY TODAY, June 24, 1966, pp. 5–9).

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Without the practical expression of Christ’s saying grace in human experience, sin becomes rampant, not only among the people but among the clergy as well. Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, after visiting the churches in Arabia and Palestine in 378, gave a mournful account of the state of the church and corruption:

If the divine grace were more abundant about Jerusalem than elsewhere, sin would not be so much the fashion among those who live there; but as it is, there is no form of uncleanness that is not perpetrated among them; rascality, adultery, theft, idolatry, poisoning, quarrelling, murder, are rife [Gregory of Nyssa, “Epistle XVII,” The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, ed. by Schaff and Wace (Eerdmans, 1953), Vol. V].

Tor Andrae, Swedish biographer of the prophet Muhammad, saw little original vitality remaining in the church in the Middle East by the dawn of Islam. He concluded:

There is scarcely any other form of Christianity in which the evangelical thought of the forgiveness of sins and our sonship of God is so completely quenched as in this Syrian monastic religion. The pious man has to earn his forgiveness of his own power by life-long penitence and self-torment [Der Ursprung des Islams und das Christentum (Kyrkohistorisk Arsskrift, 1926), p. 282; quoted by L. E. Browne in History’s Lessons for Tomorrow’s Mission (World Student Christian Federation, n.d.), p. 65].

Third, in the absence of fresh experiences of Christ’s saving grace, there was a lack of a sense of spiritual power in the lives of Christians.

The New Testament, especially the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, witnesses strongly to the conscious presence of power in the early Church. However, it is almost impossible to find any awareness of spiritual power in the Eastern churches in the period preceding the Muslim conquest. By the seventh century, churchmen were talking about past miracles and past manifestations of God’s power in their day. To fill the vacuum, church leaders learned to use civil and political power to the fullest extent. The idea that there was in Christ a power greater than any temporal power seems never to have entered their heads.

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This absence of a sense of spiritual power characterized the debilitated church until the Mongols wiped out what remained of Christianity after the Great Reproach of Islam. So completely did the church lack an awareness of its old power that the sword of steel supplanted the sword of the Spirit as the instrument of conquest in the name of Christ, as in the Crusades of Western Christendom in the Middle Ages.

A fourth factor in the near obliteration of the church in Mediterranean areas was its almost total abandonment of its early missionary thrust. Although the need was unrecognized, a strong missionary offensive was the chief guarantee of the Eastern church’s very existence, because a great mixture of nationalities with conflicting temperaments menaced the church. The Carthaginian was restless and enterprising; the Berber, intense in emotion and uncontrollable, independent and dogged; the Roman, strong in habits of order and obedience to authority.

Just as great were the differences between the Greek Byzantine and the North African. The Greeks were refined, surpassing ordinary mortals in intellect and wisdom. So greatly did they revere wisdom that Chrysostom named the great cathedral in Constantinople Saint Sophia, or “holy wisdom.” On the other hand, the North African sought to express his soul in practical devotion and utter sacrifice. The divine grace in redemption, the reality of sin, and the exceeding love that canceled it appealed to him more than the wisdom of the divine mysteries. There was only one safeguard against a violent clash of these heterogeneous elements—a strong missionary enterprise.

God granted the Eastern church splendid opportunity and a variety of human resources to take advantage of it, but the clash of internal strife deafened its ears to the call of Christian concern for the needs of others. As a result, not only was this church’s candlestick removed from its place, but the evangelization of Africa was delayed for twelve centuries.

A fifth and final reason for the downfall of the church before the great sweep of Islam was that the church had ceased to be truly indigenous, whether in Carthage, Alexandria, or Jerusalem. It was no longer carried in the hearts of its people, native to its own culture, and propagated by the missionary efforts of all its members.

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The Church had fallen into the hands of Latin and Greek theologians hot on the quest for superior theological definition, expressed in their classical languages that were not understood by the mass of the people. There could also be a little more than superficial growth in a church ruled by Byzantine emperors and foreign ecclesiastical heads sitting hundreds of miles away, chiefly interested that their own theological views prevail and that opposition be crushed. Both state and church rulers handed to the Christians of the empire an official Christianity transplanted from distant fields and mixed with alien cultures. Consequently the Muslim invaders found little inner resistance from Christians, who lacked spiritual roots they could call their own.


Frost on the ground, so still and white,

Moonlight like thin, clear wine:

The world is burning its leaves tonight,

And I am burning mine.…

Sweeping my life of leaves long dead,

Heaping them high and higher;

Probing beneath them, dark and deep,

Raking the fetid mire;

Leaves of resentment, leaves of pride,

Selfish and vain desire,

Long-cherished anger, sins unshriven,

Piling them high on the pyre

Bringing them all to the gaze of Him

Whose eyes are a flame of fire.…

Frost on the ground, so still and white,

Moonlight like thin, clear wine:

The world is burning its leaves tonight

O Christ, do Thou burn mine!


This last explanation for the tragic collapse of the church in North Africa and the Middle East needs repeating: The church never really became a North African or a Middle Eastern church. It was Roman, Vandal, or Byzantine, but never a wholly indigenous church rooted deeply in the lives of the Berbers of North Africa or the native populations of the Middle East. The peoples of these lands distrusted Rome and Byzantium, and therefore the Rome- and Byzantium-controlled church failed to win their deepest loyalties.

Lacking a solid basis in the heart and character of the people, the evangelizing spirit in these churches died long before the forces of Islam began their triumphant march across the East. Had this spirit remained alive, the church, though captive, might have witnessed effectively not only to the continent of Africa eleven centuries ago but to the Arabian Peninsula and to Palestine and Syria as well—countries that today are among the most difficult mission fields in the world.

In the Middle East, the degree to which the church escaped the obliteration of its North African sister was the degree to which it had developed an indigenous foundation, beginning with the translation of the Scriptures into the language of the people. This brought Christ home to warm the hearts of the Semitic and Hamitic peoples of these lands, where he remains today in many places, despite the Muslim conquest and centuries of oppressive domination.

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