The keyhole of a closed down church sealed with wax in Riki. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

In Algeria, the relief of the Protestant minority at the recent re-opening of three churches a month ago has been cut short, after another church was closed last week.

On Wednesday (11 July), the building used by a Protestant church in the small town of Riki (8km from Akbou), in the north-east province of Bejaia was sealed off by police, on the grounds that it does not comply with the 2006 ordinance governing non-Muslim worship.

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.

Since November 2017, six churches and a day nursery have been closed down, as World Watch Monitor has reported. A number of other churches have also received notifications to close down immediately.

However, a month ago, three of the churches – in Oran city, Ain Turk (30km west of Oran), and El Ayaida (35km east of Oran) – were told they could reopen.

The three others remain closed: ones in Ait-Mellikeche (Bejaia province) and Maatkas (Tizi Ouzou province) were ordered to close on 26 May, while in March, the village church in Azaghar, also near Akbou, was forced to stop all activities.

So, in total, four churches are now closed.

Esaid Benamara, pastor of the Riki church, told World Watch Monitor that the decision is “purely and simply unjustified” because the authorities are aware of its existence since 11 August 2017.

The church applied to join the umbrella organization, the Protestant Church of Algeria (l’Église Protestante d’Algérie, EPA) in September 2017. However, given the current pressure, any new EPA membership has been frozen. This has forced the church in Riki to operate without an official authorization, pending its regularization.

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 legal requirements and applying for re-registration in 2013, the EPA is yet to receive a response, meaning, technically, it lacks official legal status.

In May, three EPA leaders were in the UK to ask that its leaders request the Algerian government to stop its current crackdown on its Christian minority.

The pastors want 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.

On Sunday, the UK’s new Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Lord Ahmad, told the BBC that on his recent visit to Algeria, its Minister of Religious Affairs had told him about the re-opening of the three churches ‘after the FCO minister Alistair Burt had raised the issue in a constructive and collaborative manner’. But Ahmad re-iterated that ‘it’s not just about opening churches, it’s also about ensuring safety & security for the congregations.’

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 with officials from the Vice-President’s office.