An Algerian Christian given a jail sentence and a fine for carrying a Bible and other Christian items has been acquitted.

Idir Hamdad (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

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 DA (roughly $175).

On 3 May 2018, a court in Dar-El-Beida, an eastern district of the capital Algiers, overturned the prison sentence but upheld the fine for “importing unlicensed goods”.

Hamdad, who is involved in children ministry with Église Protestante du Plein Évangile (The Full Gospel Protestant Church, also known by its French acronym EPPETO) in the eastern city of Tizi Ouzou, was first arrested in April 2016 as he returned home from attending a workshop abroad.

He was detained at the airport in Algiers, the capital, and subjected to lengthy police interrogation, as World Watch Monitor reported.

Hamdad was accused of carrying in his bag a few gift items with Christian inscriptions – crucifixes, keyrings and scarves.

But on Monday, 9 July 2018, the court dropped the charges against him. (Though on 4 July, he had been informed by the court that the prosecutor had appealed, asking for a harsher sentence.)

In its verdict, the court in Dar-El-Beida found that Hamdad was prosecuted “simply because he converted to Christianity, and what he was carrying was only gifts”.

Therefore the court pronounced his “total acquittal” and asked the public treasury to pay charges and costs related to the prosecution.

“I am happy to be free at last,” Hamdad told World Watch Monitor. “I no longer have to travel all the way to Algiers, about 200km, to present myself before the judge and to answer false and unjustified accusations.”

Salah Chalah, the pastor of the Full Gospel Church in Tizi Ouzou, welcomed the verdict, saying it was the result of “the mobilisation of our friends and brothers through their prayers and diplomatic pressure”.

“However, this doesn’t mean that all our problems are resolved,” said Chalah, who is also the Vice-President of the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA). “Hence it’s important to remain vigilant until the Church in Algeria can get its full registration and becomes a social reality with which the authorities must contend.”

Churches and individual Christians in Algeria have faced increased harassment 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.

In March, two Christians were each fined 100,000 dinar (US$900) by a court in Tiaret, about 300 kilometres southwest of Algiers, for carrying over 50 Bibles in their car. Their case dated back to March 2015, but was revived almost three years later.

Previously, on 19 December 2017, three other Christians were arrested in Chlef, 200km northwest of Algiers, for carrying Christian literature. They were taken to the police station, where they were investigated at length.

Six churches and a day nursery were also closed down in recent months, as World Watch Monitor reported. The most recent closures were on 26 May, when churches in Ait-Mellikeche (Bejaia province) and Maatkas (Tizi Ouzou province) were ordered to close. In March, the village church in Azaghar, near the town of Akbou (Bejaia province), was forced to stop all activities. A number of other churches have also received notifications to close down immediately.

The authorities have accused them of operating without permission, despite their affiliation with the legally recognised EPA, the main umbrella of Protestant churches in Algeria.

But three churches closed down by authorities in the northern province of Oran were recently told they could reopen. The three churches, located in Oran city, Ain Turk (30km west of Oran), and El Ayaida (35km east of Oran), were closed between November 2017 and February 2018.

On 10 June, two of the three churches were allowed to reopen following a notification issued by the governor of Oran province. The one in El Ayaida was reopened ten days later, on 20 June.

The three churches in Ait-Mellikeche, Maatkas and Azaghar are still closed.