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'Spiritual headwashing' in the Eglise du Christianisme Céleste (Celestial Church of Christ) in Cotonou, Benin.

Christians in Africa form one of the largest religious groups. The presence of Christianity in Africa began in the middle of the first century in Egypt, and by the end of the second century in the region around Carthage. Important Africans who influenced the early development of Christianity includes Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, Cyprian, Athanasius and Augustine of Hippo.

The later rise of Islam in North Africa reduced the size and numbers of Christian congregations, leaving only the Coptic Church in Egypt and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in the Horn of Africa. The latter professes its own distinctive customs, a unique canon of the Bible, and a distinctive architecture illustrated by the structures of Axum, Debre Damo and Lalibela. It is the one community of Christians in sub-Saharan Africa which is not the product of European missionary work, but can document its foundation prior to any European countries.

Christianity is embraced by the majority of the population in most Southern, Central and Eastern African nations and in some West African nations. In North Africa, Coptic Christians make a significant minority in Egypt. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, Christianity is currently one of Africa's most widespread religions, with a following close to half the population.



Christianity by Country

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The History of Christianity in Africa began in the 1st century when Mark the Evangelist started the Orthodox Church of Alexandria in about the year 43[1]. Little is known about the first couple of centuries of African Christian history, beyond the list of bishops of Alexandria. At first the church in Alexandria was mainly Greek-speaking, but by the end of the 2nd century the scriptures and Liturgy had been translated into three local languages. Christianity was also planted in north-western Africa (today known as the Maghreb), but the churches there were linked to the Church of Rome.

At the beginning of the 3rd century the church began to expand rapidly, and five new bishoprics were established. These were suffragans of Alexandria, and at this time the Bishop of Alexandria began to be called Pope, as the senior bishop in Egypt. In the middle of the 3rd century the church in Egypt suffered severely in the persecution under the Emperor Decius. Many Christians fled from the towns into the desert. When the persecution died down, however, some remained in the desert as hermits to pray. This was the beginning of Christian monasticism, which over the following years spread from Africa to other parts of the Christian world.

The 4th century began with renewed persecution under the Emperor Diocletian. In the early 4th century, King Ezana declared Christianity the official religion of Ethiopian Kingdom of Aksum after having been converted by Frumentius, resulting in the foundation of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

End of indigeneous Christianity in northwest Africa after the Arab conquest by 700 AD

The conventional historical view is that the conquest of North Africa by the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate between AD 647–709 effectively ended Catholicism in Africa for several centuries. A prevailing view is that the Church at that time lacked the backbone of a monastic tradition and was still suffering from the aftermath of heresies including the so-called Donatist heresy, and this contributed to the earlier obliteration of the Church in the present day Maghreb. Some historians contrast this with the strong monastic tradition in Coptic Egypt, which is credited as a factor that allowed the Coptic Church to remain the majority faith in that country until around after the 14th century AD.

However, new scholarship has appeared that disputes this. There are reports that the Roman Catholic faith persisted in the region from Tripolitania (present-day western Libya) to present-day Morocco for several centuries after the completion of the Arab conquest by 700 AD. There are currently archaeological excavations in western Libya that are focused on the remains of Christian churches dated from the 10th century AD. There is also evidence of religious pilgrimages after 850 AD to tombs of Catholic saints outside of the city of Carthage, and evidence of religious contacts with Christians of Arab Spain. In addition, calendar reforms adopted in Europe at this time were disseminated amongst the indigenous Christians of Tunis, which would have not been possible had there been an absence of contact with Rome.

Local Catholicism came under pressure when the Muslim fundamentalist regimes of the Almohads and Almoravids came into power, and the record shows demands made that the local Christians of Tunis to convert to Islam. We still have reports of Christian inhabitants and a bishop in the city of Kairouan around 1150 AD - a significant report, since this city of founded by Arab Muslims around 680 AD as their administrative center after their conquest. A letter in Catholic Church archives from the 1300s shows that there were still four bishoprics left in North Africa, admittedly a sharp decline from the over four hundred bishoprics in existence at the time of the Arab conquest.

By 1830, when the French came as colonial conquerors to Algeria and Tunis, local Catholicism had been extinguished. The growth of Catholicism in the region after the French conquest was built on European colonizers and settlers, and these immigrants and their descendants left when the countries of the region became independent.

Christianity in Africa today

At the beginning of the 21st century Christianity is probably the main religion in most of sub-Saharan Africa, while in the northern part of the continent it is a minority religion, where the majority of the population are Muslims. There has been tremendous growth of Christians in Africa. As evidence, only nine million Christians were in Africa in 1900, but by the year 2000, there were an estimated 380 million Christians. According to a 2006 Pew Forum on Religion and Public life study, 147 millions of African Christians were "renewalists" (a term that includes both Pentecostals and Charismatics).[2] According to David Barrett, most of the 552,000 congregations in 11,500 denominations throughout Africa in 1995 are completely unknown in the West.[3] Much of the Christian growth in Africa is now due to African evangelism rather than European missionaries. In South Africa, it is rare to find a person with no religious beliefs, which is almost always Christianity amongst the whites and coloureds, but Christianity is extremely popular amongst the blacks, especially city-dwellers, and it is rare to find a black South African who isn't Christian.[citation needed] Christianity in Africa shows tremendous variety, from the ancient forms of Oriental Orthodox Christianity in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Eritrea to the newest African-Christian denominations of Nigeria, a country that has experienced massive conversion to Christianity in the recent time.

Some experts tell about the shift of Christianity's center of gravity from the European industrialized nations to Africa, Asia and Latin America in modern time. Yale University historian Lamin Sanneh stated, that "African Christianity was not just an exotic, curious phenomenon in an obscure part of the world, but that African Christianity might be the shape of things to come."[4] The statistics from the World Christian Encyclopedia (David Barrett) illustrate the emerging trend of dramatic Christian growth on the continent and supposes, that in 2025 there will be 633 million Christians in Africa.[5]

See also


  1. ^ Eusebius of Caesarea, the author of Ecclesiastical History in the fourth century, states that st. Mark came to Egypt in the first or third year of the reign of Emperor Claudius, i.e. 41 or 43 A.D. "Two Thousand years of Coptic Christianity" Otto F.A. Meinardus p28.
  2. ^ Christianity Today Magazine
  3. ^ See "Ecclesiastical Cartography and the Invisible Continent: The Dictionary of African Christian Biography" at
  4. ^ Christianity Today Magazine
  5. ^ World Council of Churches Report

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