The organisation linking 45 Protestant churches in Algeria, l’Eglise Protestante d’Algérie (EPA), has called on the Algerian government to lift its measure for closing down churches, and to give equal treatment under the Maghreb country’s constitution.
“As full citizens, we call on the highest authorities in the country to ensure that all the fundamental rights of the citizen are protected, regardless of their religious affiliation”, said EPA, in a statement on 18 May.
Since November, four churches have been closed down: three churches – all affiliated to EPA – in Oran and one in Akbou.
A number of other churches have received notifications to close down immediately.
EPA had been officially recognised by the government since 1974. But in 2012 new laws meant that it had to re-register. Despite meeting all the legal requirements and applying for re-registration in 2013, the EPA is yet to receive a response, meaning, technically, it lacks official legal status.
EPA denounced this as an “injustice” against its communities. It said “the churches located in Ain-Turk, Layaida, and Oran-city, were sealed off as directed by the Prefet of Oran, respectively on 17 November 2017 and on 27 February 2018, at the same time as two women’s association – thanks to the mobilization of civil society – have been authorized to re-open their doors. But strangely not the Christian religious associations” in the statement signed by the President of EPA, pastor Mahmoud Haddad.
The Algerian government has been criticised for discrimination against the country’s Christian minority. Churches and individual Christians have faced increased restrictions in recent months, raising concerns that these pressures signal a “coordinated campaign of intensified action against churches by the governing authorities”, according to Christian advocacy group Middle East Concern.
EPA’s statement coincided with the celebration of the UN International Day of Living Together’ (on 16 May) an initiative launched by NGOs, including the Alawiyya Sufi Association, led by Algerian-born Sheikh Khaled Bentounes, involved in interfaith dialogue.
That initiative is also supported by Algerian authorities. EPA recalled that President Abdulaziz Bouteflika has recently insisted on the need for Algerians to live together peacefully, without ‘exclusiveness’ or ‘exclusion’.
Still, some “Algerians, because of their Christian faith, continue to be victims of bullying and prosecution for the mere fact of being in possession of a Bible”, points out EPA.
On 16 May, a court in Tiaret, about 300 kilometres southwest of the capital, Algiers, upheld a verdict against a church leader for transporting Bibles.
Noureddine Belabbes, 30, was found guilty of proselytising and fined 100,000 Algerian dinars (c. US$ 860) and legal expenses.
His case goes back to March 2015, when, while travelling with another Christian, his car was pulled over by the police, as WWM reported.
They were then arrested and their case was referred to a prosecutor. In December 2017, they were each sentenced to two years in prison and a 50,000 dinar fine (c. $450).
But at their appeal hearing on 8 March, the judge overturned the jail sentences, instead giving them suspended sentences of three months each. However, their fines were doubled.
On Monday (18 May), as this decision was again confirmed, Noureddine said he will not again appeal the decision. “I am tired. The police keep monitoring all our movements. I do not want to inflict more pain on my family than that; I have chosen to pay the fine”.
On 3 May, a court in Dar-El-Beida, an eastern district of the capital Algiers, overturned a prison sentence, but upheld a fine, against another Christian convicted for carrying a Bible and other Christian items.
Idir Hamdad, 29, had been convicted in absentia on 28 September 2017 (though he only learned about this five months later) and given the maximum sentence of six months in prison, as well as a fine of 20,000 dinars (roughly $175).
His case dates back to April 2016, when he was arrested at the airport following a complaint by the customs office.
World Watch Monitor understands that the men were convicted under Algeria’s 2006 law regulating non-Muslim worship, which forbids the printing, storing and distribution of materials intended to “shake the faith” of a Muslim.
Last month, three pastors from Algeria were in the UK to ask that its leaders lobby the Algerian government to stop its current crackdown on its Christian minority.
Mustafa Krim, Ali Khidri and Youssef Ourahmane, representing EPA, wanted to ensure that Christians are provided for under Algerian law, that the laws are respected and implemented and that Algeria fulfils its commitment to freedom of religion or belief as stated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
They met government ministers and parliamentarians in Westminster before continuing on to France and to speak to senior EU officials.
The pastors are lobbying for the de-regulation of places of worship, official recognition for the EPA, an end to anti-proselytism laws, and freedom to import Christian materials.
The delegation started its tour in the USA where they met officials from the Vice-President’s office.