My trip to Tunisia started with a conversation.
“This is an orphan church. They feel separated from the other churches in the Middle East. They feel disconnected from each other in their own country.”
That’s how Kalim Andraos, our team leader, described the state of the Christian church in Tunisia.
“What’s our purpose for going?” I asked.
“We want to love on these people and we want to provide a retreat for them where they can relax and get to know one another, break bread together and worship Jesus together.”
That was all I needed to hear. So in late August, I stepped up to join Kalim and his son David, a high school senior, and Jon Elliott a good friend, to go to Tunisia to encourage the brothers and sisters there.
A few days later, Kalim texted us some background on Tunisia:
On the North African coast of the Mediterranean.
A narrow country that runs north to south wedged between two huge land masses, Algeria on the West and Libya and the Mediterranean on the East.
Settled by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC with Carthage as its capital.
Famously inhabited by Augustine.
One of the cradles in the nursery of the early church.
Conquered and settled by Muslims from the 8th century AD until the present.
The well spring for the freedom movement of 2011-2012 known as the “Arab Spring.”
Although this thumb-nail sketch was a start, it left me wondering about the believers themselves. What is it like to be a Tunisian Christian, a whisker in the beard of a country of 11 million Muslims? How does religious intolerance feel to the average Tunisian believer? What form does it take? Does any American missionary group help any believers we’ll meet? If so, how? Is the church growth in Tunisia stuck in neutral or moving ahead in overdrive? Is the growth “top down” aided by American evangelicals or “bottom up” with Tunisians telling other Tunisians where they’ve found the Bread of Life?
After a scant eight days there, I don’t think anyone on our team would presume to know all the answers, but there are some clear first impressions that might begin to clarify the complexities of the way God is working in Tunisia.
Tunisia is a fascinating mix of the modern and the ancient. The commercialization of the occult is big business. The busiest fortune tellers live comfortably telling their clients, for example, whom they should marry, or bring on as a business partner. Live lizards – a key component in casting certain spells – are sold by the roadside, dangling from cane poles. Unemployment among college graduates was 29.3% in Q1 2018. (Source: www.worldbank.org) It’s not uncommon to see sidewalk café after café, anytime day or night, populated exclusively by males of all ages, smoking, drinking coffee, and looking at cell phones. Women and children sell bread right in front of most toll booths. If you are a terrorist convicted of murder, it is not without precedent to serve weeks, not years in prison. Building permit for a mosque? Yes, sir. Right this way! Building permit for a “church facility”? No. Sorry. We don’t do those here. Never did we have to look very far to see Tunisian military and law enforcement setting up road blocks and security check points.
Hurricane Florence had flooded most of the coastal Carolinas before we got off the plane in Tunis. An hour into our drive down the coast, the heavens opened and dumped half a year’s rainfall, drowning streets and sidewalks and turning low-lying olive groves into lakes and rivers. A forty-five minute drive with Pastor Rasheed in the lead car became a torrential two-hour crawl to our hotel. “Florence has followed us,” we said.
We owe a debt of gratitude to Pastor Rasheed and his wife Nadia for handling the myriad of details in planning the Tunisian church’s first retreat in modern times. It was the main event that our other house church visits would lead to, beginning Sunday afternoon in S’fax.
On Sunday, we drove the 135 miles from Hammamet to Sfax, where we would meet with other believers. This event was unique to any other “church service” I’ve ever experienced. This simple gathering touched our hearts.
Picture this. On a sunny day at around 2:30, we are greeted at the front door of a modest home on a side street in a bustling city of 330,000. The lady of the house, in her late sixties, is wearing dark blue and black from head to toe with only her face visible. She welcomes us in and shows us to a small room on the left of a short entrance hall. Refreshments of homemade cake and small glass cups of hot African black tea are offered. Around the room young men and women are seated on rectangular cushions along the wall. I take a seat next to an open window which gives the room its only ventilation from the 90 degree heat outside. A baby boy maybe six months old sits in an infant seat to my right separating me from his mother, a young woman in her mid-twenties, with long dark hair and dressed like her Western counterpart from suburban America. As the young pastor calls the meeting to order, he walks to the only window in the room, closes it and draws the curtains tightly. We sing no hymns or praise songs. The pastor and his fifteen-member congregation speak in the hushed tones of library patrons from 50 years ago. The pastor welcomes the guests and asks them to introduce themselves. The Scriptures are read. Prayers are raised. When the meeting is over in maybe an hour, a guest suggests the worshippers gather outside on the sidewalk for a photo. Graciously and immediately, the pastor insists we stay inside for the picture. Amidst all of the good-byes and the traditional kisses on both cheeks, we walk through the doorway, onto the neighborhood sidewalk, some leaving in cars, others on foot. Nobody seemed to mind the group photo was never taken. At the time, I saw it as a lost photo-op to show friends back home “this is the church in North Africa.” I got the impression the Tunisian believers were relieved that it would be one less picture to fall into the wrong hands. Did I mention that our hostess had only become a Jesus follower six months earlier? Watching people practice a risky faith would set the tone for the rest of our week. We couldn’t possibly have known what opposition we would face less than 24 hours later.
One thing I learned about Tunisia and its microscopic Christian minority is that you never quite know what “minding your own business” can actually lead to. The next day, we would begin to find out.
We travel up the coastal highway one sunny morning and we arrive at the home of our contact, Majdi, whose bright smile and youthful energy radiate a winsomeness, rare in MENA (Middle East-North Africa) culture.
With hearty greetings all around, we briefly tour his bright, neatly furnished apartment and get an introduction to God’s work in the local church there. To continue our conversation, we all pile into our rented, dusty mini-van for the short drive to a small café district. We order coffee and sodas and proceed to sit down in a circle in a grassy park just across from the café. Of course, we are shooting the breeze and talking about Jesus. We didn’t pay any attention to the two ordinary looking young men who sat down within earshot of us. Whether either one of these eavesdroppers had COEXIST on his car bumper was unclear. Equally uncertain is whether the joy police snitched on us to the local imam, who by now had joined the other two men in rolling out the black carpet for us with a stream of Arabic invective including the only understandable words “Carolina” and “Jesus.” Because Majdi and the imam knew each other, we struck camp, tipped the café waiter generously, and left the sheltering trees of our park site after an hour’s sweet fellowship.
In this, the oldest city in Tunisia, the two house-churches comprise all of twenty believers between them, in a governate population of 600,000. Still, there are signs of church growth. Two people were scheduled for baptism 48 hours after we returned home. Brother Majdi the pastor draws no church salary. Married and the father of two children, he holds down a full-time job as a QC technician in an electronics plant. Easily the oldest Tunisian believer we met, he was born again while listening to Christian broadcasts via Transworld Radio from Monte Carlo twenty years ago. Before leaving Bizerte, we drove to some high bluffs overlooking the ancient port and prayed for God to pour out His Holy Spirit and to grow His church there and in doing so, to bless the people of Bizerte. Harassment from landlords, the police, and local imams can be harrowing enough, but consider the story of another brother we met last week who was almost martyred.
He was born in Tunis in the 1980’s to a fundamentalist Muslim family. His father was an engineer with a hefty income. When Mohammed was a young child, his father took a job in Saudi Arabia and moved his family there where his father became close friends with an imam. Because of his devotion to Islam, Mohammed’s father enrolled him in a school at one of the local mosques to prepare Mohammed for being an imam. For four hours a day, five days a week, he studied and began to memorize the Koran. After ten years in Saudi Arabia, he moved with his family back to Tunis, and as adolescents often do, Mohammed began to ask questions about his faith. Gradually, he became fascinated with Jesus. As he was drawn to learn more about Jesus and Christianity, he began reading and watching YouTube videos about the Christian faith. Many of them featured a former Mohammed-to-Jesus convert explaining the basics of Christianity. This led to his conversion to Christ and paying the price by becoming a social pariah and a target for violence, which is a customary result for many new converts in Muslim-dominated cultures. Not only has his family disowned him, but at one point he was beaten by Muslim extremists and left for dead. Although I had heard about Muslims turning against their own if they convert, our new friend Mohammed had become our first flesh-and-blood example of this horrible practice. His Christian faith, perhaps not surprisingly, has led to a series of job losses that resulted in two years of living on the street. Now he has employment and an apartment where he is ahead on his rent. Despite his deep wounds, he exhibits an even deeper faith marked by supernatural resilience and perseverance.
For other former Muslims, the oppression can be almost invisible to new friends visiting from America.
For example, we met in the home of a medical doctor last week to continue with our goal of encouraging Tunisian believers, listening to them, loving them, discovering their needs and starting to bring together the little house churches from across Tunisia to broaden their sense of “one another.” Sitting in a circle in their spacious living room, we began person-by-person introducing ourselves, and after a few moments, it was clear the Holy Spirit was making the koinonia happen. This was personified by their six-year old daughter, Sophie, who had been dancing and twirling and smiling around the room with the light-hearted, innocent abandon of a young child. Even as we bowed in prayer, each of us felt a little hand gently touch our heads, signifying at least to me that the Holy Spirit of God was pleased to be welcomed here. This would become one of the happiest meetings of our week.
As we moved toward the main event of the week – the retreat – we would meet upwards of 60 Tunisian Christians altogether, each with her own story. None was more compelling than this next one.
As brother Mahrez tells it, the revolution known as the Arab Spring of 2011, brought with it a sense of hope for greater freedom and economic opportunity. After a short time, it became clear that the forces of radical Islam were bent on subverting the freedom movement. They began by taking over virtually every mosque in the country. Against this revolutionary backdrop, another revolution was beginning to stir inside Mahrez. To hear him tell it, it came to him directly from God.
One night, he dreamed he was standing at the grave of Muhammad, the founder of Islam. A man standing near the grave site said “Would you like me to show you what Muhammad looks like now?” Mahrez declined, but the man proceeded to dig away the dirt and open the crypt which revealed the hideous face of a man entombed for 14 centuries. As Mahrez backed away, Muhammad rose from the ground and began chasing him. In the distance, he saw a light and the closer he got to the light, the greater the distance between himself and Muhammad. Something else happened. The light drew Mahrez closer until he was embraced by the most wonderful and deep sense of comfort, peace and joy he had ever experienced. When he awoke, he realized the light was Jesus reaching out to him. Days later, he surrendered to the One who embraced him during that life-changing night.
So the validity of dreams which the Western church considers cautiously – and rightly so - seems to figure prominently in the testimonies of many former Muslims we’ve met.
On Thursday afternoon, the retreatants began to arrive at the resort hotel in Hammamet. We chose it because we wanted our guests to enjoy the best food, lodging, and recreation the area could offer. By late that afternoon, forty or so of us had gathered in our spacious meeting room for the first of our most joyful praise and worship times of the week. By the next morning, ten or more would join us. When the reservations were made weeks earlier, the hotel general manager had assured us “we like your people,” so we sensed a certain security in peaceably assembling there for the three days we would be together.
This retreat was meant to be a place of refreshment, for praise, for fellowship, for the teaching of the Word, for safe disclosure. After a short, hearty greeting to all, brother Rasheed our host asked the participants to state their name, their vision for the church in Tunisia, and one or two prayer requests. Not surprisingly, their vision for the Tunisian church often became their prayer requests and emphasizing the spiritual and not the physical. For example:
“Real love for one another, not artificial.”
“That the Word of God would go forth everywhere.”
“All of our love will grow for one another.”
“That the church will make a difference in the country.”
“That Tunisia will become thirsty for the Word of God.”
“That every neighborhood would have a church.”
“That shackles will be broken.”
“That we experience more of Jesus.”
“Unity for all believers, like the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
As the keyboardist, guitarist, and worship leader launched into the evening’s worship songs, all sung in Arabic, it was clear this would be a night of high decibel praise, leaving nothing in reserve, Islamic fundamentalism notwithstanding.
Kalim Andraos, our team leader and visionary extraordinaire, kindly asked Jon Elliott and me to prepare some devotional thoughts for the conference. “What do your people need to hear, Lord?” I asked. “What is our most pressing need, here and in America?” The Lord impressed Jon and me to cover two different topics, both critical to the church worldwide. For Jon, it was following the Lord through setbacks and disappointments while staying focused on the Lord Jesus. He shared humbly and candidly about his nine-month experience of unemployment and how the Lord undertook for him throughout that challenging time. For me, I taught from Psalm 23 and John 10 about the necessity of listening to the Good Shepherd, and the companion skill of filtering out the noise of the world and our own bad thoughts. Neither of these topics were new to our long-suffering brothers and sisters in Islamic North Africa.
As we wrapped up eight days in Tunisia, we remembered their expressed needs from the view two miles up: authentic love for one another, a national hunger for the Word of God, unity among believers locally and nationally. As a ministry team underwritten by our VineBranch partners in the Carolinas, we sought to love the believers at ground level, to lighten their burdens and to share liberally in meeting their material needs. Specifically, through the generosity of our American partners, we funded the rent for the Sfax house church through September 2019; we provided funding for Arabic Bibles and Discovery Bible Study materials for discipling believers in Bizerte; we provided funds for food and shelter for an outspoken witness for Christ; we are helping a brother, a former pastor, to afford his cancer treatments; we are helping house church leaders feed and clothe their families so they can refocus on the work of the ministry. Our plans call for another, larger autumn retreat in 2019 with well-known Christian vocalist and Lebanese pastor Ayman Kafrouny. Follow up from our trip includes getting house church leaders connected with American mission groups already in the region. These things will take time and material resources. We could not do it without the grace of God and the generosity of our VineBranch partners for which we are deeply grateful. Thank you again for giving so generously and prayerfully. Your investments are certain to yield dividends now and into eternity as we all work by faith in His Mighty Name.