North Africa has massive mountain ranges dominating much of Morocco and Algeria, vast fertile valleys yielding vegetables, fruit, and grains, and the Sahara in the south. The beautiful beaches, ancient Arab cities, and Roman ruins attract countless tourists.
Though the climates vary widely, all but the desert regions are quite livable. Known as the Maghreb (Arabic for “the west”), North Africa was first conquered by the Phoenicians, then the people of Carthage, and then the Romans in 44 AD.
Muslim expansion in the 7th century led to successive local Berber Muslim kingdoms controlling the region for more than a thousand years. French, Spanish, and Italian colonial powers dominated from the 18th century until the modern nation states became independent after World War II.
North Africans are amazingly friendly, open, hospitable, and resilient people. They are mostly Mediterranean peoples who share much in common ethnically, culturally, and historically with the peoples of southern Europe. There are still millions of indigenous people – the Berbers – despite the early dominance of the region by Arabs.
Large minority groups speaking several Berber dialects thrive in the mountainous and other remote areas. Local dialects of Arabic prevail in the cities. French is widely spoken everywhere except Libya, especially in the cities.
All the countries are linked and largely dependent on Europe, both economically and culturally. Most countries are making steady strides in education and literacy. Primary education is widespread, and literacy rates are improving.
A 25% unemployment rate is the highest of any region in the world. The small upper and middle classes often prosper amid widespread chronic poverty. Corruption is a huge challenge. Despite significant outside investment to develop infrastructure, the high levels of private and government corruption choke economic flourishing. This hardship leads to great disillusionment and anger among the young, especially the university educated who have few opportunities.
Libya and Mauritania struggle the most. The political and economic situation in Libya is only gradually stabilizing following the removal of Gaddafi in 2011. Poverty continues to be a massive challenge for Mauritania. The country is mostly desert, and there are few natural resources.
Islam shapes many cultural features typical of the region. North Africans are generally proud to be Muslim, though they often do not practice consistently. Islam is often nominal and the people secular in outlook.
People do not separate their national identity from their identity as Muslims. Mainstream Sunni Islam predominates. Governments in the region often try to shape Islamic expressions for their own purposes. For example, in his efforts to battle radical Muslims in Morocco, King Muhammad VI is seeking to revive the Sufi brotherhoods that were once influential.
He hopes that mystical devotion to Allah will be less of a threat to his rule than militant zeal. This attempt to manipulate people’s thinking is often deeply resented. Many unemployed and disaffected youth are dissatisfied with the status quo. While some turn to radical Islamist groups, many are increasingly frustrated with Islam itself and search elsewhere for answers
No country in the region has a surviving Christian community that originated before the arrival of Islam. There has been Protestant missionary work in much of North Africa since the 1800s (it only began in Mauritania in the 1980s).
The strength of the underground church varies, and the number of foreigners working and serving in-country fluctuates. Satellite TV and internet ministries operating outside the region are bearing increasing fruit.
Since the 1990s Algeria has witnessed significant conversions among the Kabyle people, with perhaps several hundred thousand Christians today. Other countries have seen far smaller and less resilient underground house church movements.
Levels of persecution vary, with the strongest opposition to Christ coming from family and community members. In recent decades, reports of dozens of house church plants in Morocco and Tunisia provide great encouragement, but very little is happening in Libya and Mauritania—yet. But God continues his work!