Arab and Berber Followers of Christ: Two Languages, One Lord
By Rabih Hasbany
The Berber, or Amazigh, are an ethnic group descended from the pre-Arab indigenous inhabitants of North Africa. The Berbers live in communities across Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Niger, and Mauritania. They speak various Amazigh languages belonging to the Afro-Asiatic family.
The two largest populations of Berbers are found in Algeria and Morocco. Roughly one-fourth of the population in Algeria is estimated to be Berber, while Berbers are estimated to make up more than three-fifths of the population in Morocco.
The Berber identity extends beyond language and ethnicity and encompasses the entire history and geography of North Africa. Berbers are not a completely homogeneous ethnicity, and they embrace an array of societies, origins, religious convictions and lifestyles. For example, the majority of Berbers are currently Sunni Muslim. Recently, however, some Berbers have openly converted to Shia Islam, Christianity or atheism. The unifying factors are their shared language and a collective identification with Berber heritage and history.
In 705 AD, the Arabs completed their conquest of Berber territory, which they called Bilād al-Maghrib (“Lands of the West”) or simply the Maghrib. The Arab Muslim conquerors had a much more durable impact on the culture of the Maghrib than did the region’s conquerors before and after them. By the 11th century the Berbers had become Islamized and in part also Arabized. The region’s indigenous Christian communities, which before the Arab conquest had constituted an important part of the Christian world, ceased to exist.
Although the two communities have coexisted for centuries in North Africa, many conflicts have emerged due to ethnic tensions between Berbers and Arabs. The Arab-Berber conflict has been part of daily life. As the ruling powers in North Africa have pushed forward with the Arabization of the population, many Berbers came to feel discriminated against in the face of a powerful threat to their linguistic and culture heritage.
The Berbers are seeking official recognition of their language in Morocco and the Berber New Year has been recognized as a national holiday in Algeria and other neighboring countries; however, Berbers throughout North Africa seek further recognition of their rights.
The church that exists now in North Africa is part of the community and cannot isolate itself from the existing Arab-Berber conflict. It is in a critical position since it is so tempting to align with the Berbers, who constitute the vast majority of the followers of Christ in North Africa. It can even become more tempting for the Christians to take part in the conflict when Arabic language and culture is perceived as being the language and culture of Islam.
Last year, I attended a conference with an Algerian Christian family. The parents do not communicate in Arabic with their children, and they insist on speaking only the Amazigh language with them. Their youngest daughter does not even know any Arabic words. I asked them about the reason for not using Arabic with their children. They answered me back that Amazigh is their mother tongue and Arabic is the language of Islam that the children will learn at school later, since they are obliged to learn it and to read the Quran. Their attitude may be interpreted on two levels. First, they are eager to maintain their original language as an essential element of their identity as Berbers. Second, they are not pleased that their children are obliged to learn Arabic and they are trying to resist the influence of Arabization/Islamization on their children.
To learn more about the existing relations between followers of Christ from Berber origins and those from Arabic origins, I interviewed one of our Moroccan students. She said that Arabs and Berbers dislike each other in general, but in the church they relate well to one another. However, she expressed her resentment that even in the church priority is always for Arabs and all the services and Bible study programs are done in Arabic even though only two in her church are Arabs and the rest are all Berbers. She also expressed her longing to read the Bible in the Berber language, telling me that one of our graduates has finished working on a translation of the Bible into Berber but that it has not yet been published since it still needs revision and editing.
A Moroccan graduate of ABTS has a different experience regarding the relationships between Berbers and Arabs in his ministry context. He said that Berber followers of Christ identify more with Berbers than Arabs and they target their own people in ministry, as they care more for them. He added that Arabs feel excluded sometimes from the group and isolated when the majority speak to each other in Berber.
Theological Reflections and Missiological Implications
Paul addresses the ethnic conflict between Jews and Gentiles in his letter to the Galatian church. He urges the believers to seek unity in Christ regardless of ethnic and cultural differences. He says: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28, NIV). This unity comes from a transformation in the core identity of the believer who becomes a new creation with a transformed mind a spirit. Followers of Christ, regardless of their ethnic background, share one Lord, one faith and one baptism. As the Galatians were urged to seek unity within the one body of Christ so are North African believers are called to embrace one another for sharing one identity in Christ that transcends ethnic and linguistic differences.
Also in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul presents God’s marvelous plan to bring peace, unity and salvation to all people, Jews and gentiles alike. “Through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:6, NIV). God treats humans equally and offers his grace to humans without discrimination. As ambassadors of Christ we are called to accomplish His mission in our communities. His plan is to bring peace and salvation to all people, so we are also called to a comprehensive ministry not exclusive to any ethnicity. The North African body of Christ is called to surpass all divisions and extend God’s plan to Berbers and Arabs equally.
On the other hand, Paul respected Jewish traditions and never called the believers from a Jewish background to abstain from practicing circumcision or eating clean food. But he also clarified to them that salvation is by faith and not by works. The church in North Africa is called to respect the Berber language and the traditions of its people, as well as the Arab. This can be demonstrated for example by offering translation to Berber language during church meetings for those who do not speak Arabic, or vice versa.
Accepting Christ’s death in atonement for sin has put Arabs and Berbers on equal basis before God. By making forgiveness of sin available to all peoples, Christ abolished every excuse to maintain hostility toward others.