Hard pressed but not crushed

SINCE AFRICAN CHURCH FATHER Tertullian wrote (c. 200) that “the blood of the saints is the seed of the church,” African Christians have never lived without persecution. Yet in the midst of the suffering, the African church has expanded. 

“i will struggle till the end”

Persecution dogged Christians in Ethiopia since Christianity was first introduced there in the fourth century (see CH 105, Christianity in Early Africa). In the centuries since, many Christians have been killed, wounded, dislocated, discriminated against, and terrorized because of their faith. 

In the modern era, after overthrowing Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Sellassie I, the military junta that ruled the country from 1974 to 1991 established a group called the Derg (meaning “committee”). The Derg announced itself as the leader of a revolution dedicated to “the eradication of backward practices” and a “root-out of foreign values.” The junta despised and undermined all religious groups but targeted evangelical Christians especially. 

Western missionaries’ involvement in evangelical Ethiopian churches and Christian refusal to embrace slogans they considered unbiblical (“Above all is the revolution” and “Religion is the opiate of the masses”) caused the junta to be suspicious, labeling Christians as spies, unpatriotic, and a threat to the nation. The Derg suppressed its enemies through long-term imprisonment, torture, denial of rights, and death. 

Unfortunately this state-sponsored persecution and propaganda also created an environment that encouraged some members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to expel evangelicals from a social institution and burial association called the edir. Those expelled could no longer own burial ground for their dead. Though some older and larger evangelical groups like the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus could hold services legally, others could not, and many churches were forced to close. 

Underground home churches served their members regularly, growing in numbers, locations, and spirit as they held secret worship, Bible study, and prayer. Christian gospel songs also comforted and created hope for those under persecution. The songs were a powerful resistance force—so powerful that some of their singers were imprisoned. Tesfaye Gabiso, a legendary singer locked up for many years, wrote songs of encouragement such as “God Is Mighty,” “My Unshakable Foundation,” and “I Struggle”:

I will struggle, I will struggle, 

I will struggle until the end. 

I believe the God of Israel will give me victory.

Some Ethiopian church leaders sacrificed their lives. One, Rev. Gudina Tumsa (1929–1979), was a prominent theologian. Deeply engaged in social work in the community, he encouraged Christian churches to meet the needs of their neighbors. 

As a response to persecution, Tumsa helped Christian leaders form the first Council for Cooperation of Churches in Ethiopia and served as its first chairman. One of its main agendas was combating the growing influence of Communism. His outstanding leadership and focus on human dignity troubled Communist leaders, and they kept their eyes on him. He was imprisoned several times. 

Julius Kambarage Nyerere, president of Tanzania (1961–1985), intervened, managed to get Tumsa released from prison, and offered him a possibility of escape. But Tumsa replied: “Here is my church and my congregation. How can I, as a church leader, leave my flock at this moment of trial? I have again and again pleaded with my pastors to stay on.”

He reminded Nyerere, “’Christ died for all that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again‘ [2 Cor. 5:15]. Never ever will I escape.” In July 1979 Tumsa was abducted and executed. Many called him the African Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 

there from the beginning

In Egypt the approximately 4,000,000 to 8,000,000 Coptic Christians are the minority religion despite their long history on Egyptian soil. (According to the Egyptian government, Copts make up 6 percent of the population; church sources estimate 15 to 20 percent.)

African tradition holds that Christianity was first introduced to Egypt by Mark, the writer of the Gospel bearing his name, who established the church in Alexandria. Christianity flourished in Egypt for many centuries. But the situation changed after the Arab-Muslim conquest of 640. Over the centuries Coptic Christians faced persecution, often systematic, from different groups and even from the state itself. In the twentieth century this included death, harassment, and the burning of houses, churches, monasteries, and Christian businesses. Laws against Christians got tougher, and attacks by sectarian groups (like the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic political organization) increased.

A law passed in 1934 restricted building churches except in locations where there was no mosque nearby. This was later changed, but until the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, churches still needed government approval to be built. Christians also could not participate in political affairs. When they protested, churches, houses, and shops were burned, and Christians were stoned to death. 

Many expected things to improve when the Arab Spring removed the tyrannical government of Hosni Mubarak (ruled 1981–2011). But instead conditions worsened: many ancient churches were burned, and Christians remained a target of the Muslim Brotherhood with no government protection. In August 2013 alone, around 40 churches were destroyed. Sometimes attacks were encouraged and backed by government officials. Vandals painted graffiti proclaiming “Egypt is Muslim—not Christian” on churches and Christian-owned buildings.

The 2011 New Year’s massacre in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, where Clement and Origen once walked in Christianity’s early centuries, left 23 Christians dead and more than 70 wounded. It occurred at a church service attended by over 1,000 people. In August 2013 Coptic Christian girl Jessica Boulous was shot walking home from a Bible class with her teacher when they stopped at a market stall. A Muslim shopkeeper wrapped the motionless girl in his shirt and took her to a local hospital, but it was too late. Her uncle, an evangelical pastor, told news media, “I just can’t believe she is gone. She was such a sweet little girl . . . like a daughter to me.” 

“god has the final say”

Following a 1999 northern Nigerian campaign for the implementation of Sharia law (Islamic law that governs both religious and day-to-day life), Christians became the most persecuted religious group in Nigeria, especially in the country’s northern states, despite government efforts to intervene. In 2012 alone around 900 Nigerian Christians died because of their faith. 

From 2002 on the Islamic group Boko Haram (meaning “Western education is sinful”) based in northeastern Nigeria carried out attacks on Christians, spurred by a desire to make the area an independent Islamic region. Frequently the group killed Christians, burned their churches, and forced survivors to relocate. 

In February 2011 Boko Haram demanded that Christians leave northern Nigeria in three days. Countless Christians fled to the south,

leaving villages and possessions behind. In March 2012 over 40 died in a suicide bomb attack beside a bus station in a predominantly Christian neighborhood in Kano. And in December 2013, three churches were burned in Gamboru Ngala. 

After one attack Soja Bewarang, president of the Nigerian denomination the Church of Christ in Nations, reminded the faithful, “Even as we are looking at these issues, we need not forget that God has the final say on man and his security concerns. . . . We must always surrender our security concerns to the Lord, because the watchman watches in vain if the Lord does not watch alongside with him.”

In the end Christianity in Africa has not been crushed; rather it has blossomed. The apostle Paul said long ago: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8–9). Paul, who passed through much persecution in his life, also wrote, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” (Rom. 8:35–39).

Christians, less than 10 percent of Africans at the beginning of the twentieth century, were almost 50 percent at the beginning of the twenty-first. The church meant to perish instead flourished and multiplied in thousands and millions all over the continent. CH 

By Yabibal Teklu

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #109 in 2014]

Yabibal Teklu is a pastor, educator, and doctoral candidate in systematic theology at Yonsei University, Seoul, South Korea, specializing in African theological education.
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