RABAT (Reuters) - A new breed of undercover Christian missionary is turning to Muslim north Africa in the search for new converts, alarming Islamic leaders who say they prey on the weak and threaten public order.
Missionary groups say the number of Moroccan Christians has grown to 1,500 from 100 in a decade and that Algerian Christians number several thousand, although no official figures exist.
They say their message is reaching thousands more, thanks partly to satellite TV and the internet.
The Koran states no-one can be forced to follow one religion, but many Muslims believe that to abandon Islam is to shun family, tribe and nation and bring shame upon relatives.
"Many Muslims told me 'If I find you I will kill you'," said Amin, a young man from northern Morocco who did not want to give his full name for fear of reprisals.
Amin said he became aware of Jesus Christ after dreaming that a figure dressed in a white robe approached him in a forest and handed him a Bible.
"When I told my father I had become a Christian he just stared at me without speaking. Then he said: 'From now on, you are not my son. Go to those people, let them feed you and give you a home -- we'll see who cares for you'," said Amin.
He left town, stopped his studies and now lives from translation work offered by a Christian missionary group.
Mission groups in North Africa range from broad alliances such as Partners International and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to small Baptist and Pentecostal churches based in the Americas and Europe, according to their Web sites.
Their activity is growing as churches turn their focus to places where the Christian message is rarely heard, said Dana Robert, world Christianity professor at Boston University.
"With the internet and the increase in travel, you have a democratization of missions where anyone who feels like it can go anywhere they want," said Robert. "The new breed of missionary doesn't have the same historical training as the older established denominations, nor necessarily the cultural training, so there's a bull-in-a-china-shop effect."
Converts recount stories of persecution as evidence of the risks they run. These are impossible to verify, but one said he heard a newly converted Moroccan was thrown from a balcony in a shopping mall by two acquaintances, leaving him paralyzed.
Another said people of a town in eastern Morocco threatened to decapitate a convert unless he renounced his faith.
Islamic leaders say missionaries exploit people with a weak understanding of their religion, target the poor and the sick and try to win over north Africa's Berbers by telling them Islam was imposed on them by Arabs.
"These are unethical methods," said Mohammed Yssef, general secretary of the Superior Council of Ulemas, Morocco's highest religious authority. "Islam is the religion of God. It is neither Arab nor Berber.
"When people respond positively (to missionaries), it is when they don't have their full freedom," said Yssef. "Once they recover their normal health and situation, they recover their ability to decide."
The missionaries deny exploiting the weak. They say their clandestine status means they have to set up businesses or language schools at which converts are sometimes employed.
"Three years ago I began praying about parts of the world that had not taken up the Gospel," said Tyler, a member of an Ohio Baptist church who set up Project North Africa in Morocco. He said that his work could be disrupted if he gave his surname.
"The goal is to give a clear presentation of the Gospel and address things people might have been told -- for example that the Bible is corrupt or that we worship three gods."
He said he was preparing the ground for colleagues, mostly from South America, who would learn Morocco's dialect and seek to set up small businesses to fund the group's evangelical work.
The convert Amin said hundreds of Moroccan Christians gather every year in Sale near the capital Rabat to celebrate Christmas, protected by police. But the meeting is an exception and indigenous Christians say they worship alone and in secret.
Christian communities existed in north Africa until Arabs arrived from the east from the eighth century, and most of the local population adopted Islam.
Attempts to re-Christianise the area were a failure that came to be symbolized by Frenchman Charles de Foucault, who tried to establish a Christian community in the Algerian desert.
His example of abject poverty failed to inspire the local Tuareg to convert, and Muslim insurgents shot him dead in 1916.
French settlers built striking churches in Casablanca, Rabat, Algiers and Tunis to symbolize their imperial "civilizing mission" but congregations dispersed after independence.
Morocco's government says it practices religious tolerance but the Christian presence is low-key. St. Peter's Cathedral in Rabat does not ring its bells and churchgoers are all foreign.
Moroccan Christians worshipping there would risk arrest and Archbishop Vincent Landel told Reuters he would not baptize a Moroccan convert as it is against the law.
He said U.S.-funded missionaries had made life harder for the Roman Catholic church in north Africa.
"It upsets everything because all these evangelical converts lack restraint and discretion -- they do any old thing," he said. "And to Muslims there's no difference between a Catholic, an evangelist or a Protestant, so in their minds the head of all the Christians must be the Catholic Archbishop."
Outside the cities, the visible Christian presence is limited to small communities from Roman Catholic orders who lead charitable work including medical and wealth-creating projects, but avoid preaching.
They rely on smooth relations with the authorities, but in Algeria the climate has soured in recent months after a series of trials against local Protestants accused of proselytism.
The constitution of Algeria, the birthplace of St. Augustine, a Berber, allows freedom of conscience but a 2006 law strictly regulates how religions can be practiced and forbids attempts to convert Muslims.
"We shouldn't kill one another in the name of religion," Algerian Religious Affairs Minister Bouabdellah Ghlamallah told Liberte newspaper. "That people come from the U.S. and France to spread ideas contrary to national unity, that's the danger."
A Christian community that employs 70 women making embroidered Berber ceremonial clothes in Algeria's restive region of Kabylie works toward cohabitation among religions.
"We are in the service of beauty which is a quality of God, and that is also mentioned in the Koran," said Sister Elizabeth Herkommer, who runs the project.
Missionaries like Tyler take a more radical line.
"If there is just one way to heaven, it is my responsibility to show it," he said. "If you had the cure to the AIDS virus, would you not want to take it to the people?"
Additional reporting by Algiers and Tunis bureau; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Sara Ledwith