The UN Human Rights Committee has urged the Algerian government to stop harassing its Christian minority, after several churches and other religious institutions were closed down in recent months.
Since November 2017, six churches have been forcibly closed in the Maghreb country – three were later reopened – as well as a Christian bookshop and day-care centre for Christian children. Dozens of other churches also received notifications ordering them to close.
The UNHRC was reviewing Algeria’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and, in its concluding observations on 26 July, said it “remained concerned” over the closures.
The UNHRC called on Algeria to “guarantee the full exercise of their freedom of thought, conscience and religion to all”.
It also said the Algerian government should “refrain from obstructing the religion of persons who do not observe the official religion, in particular by the means of destruction and closure of establishments or refusal to grant registration of religious movements”.
The issues faced by churches in Algeria were presented in a new report by the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA).
In its report, submitted to the UNHRC in June, the WEA explained that the church closures were justified according to a 2006 ordinance, which stipulates that permission must be obtained before using a building for non-Muslim worship, and that such worship can only be conducted in buildings which have been specifically designated for that purpose.
But in practice, the authorities have failed to respond to almost all applications from churches for places of worship. In view of the authorities’ failure to respond to applications, it has become standard practice for churches to rent premises and inform the local authorities that they have done so.
The 2006 ordinance provided in principle for the establishment of a national commission for non-Muslim worship, which would be responsible for building regulations. However, such a commission was never created and the ensuing legal uncertainty about the status of churches has been used to justify their closure.
The WEA said the main body of Evangelical Christians in Algeria, the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA), has been specifically targeted, with most EPA member churches visited by committees to verify their legal status and building safety standards.
The WEA welcomed the UNHRC’s recommendations.
“We are satisfied that the Human Rights Committee questioned the Algerian delegation on 5 July on the closure of churches, the court cases against Christians, as well on the conditions and rules for non-Muslim worship,” said WEA advocacy officer Wissam al-Saliby.
“We are grateful that the committee issued clear recommendations to the government of Algeria in its concluding observations [on 26 July] to respect the freedom of religion of all, namely by ceasing the closure of places of worship and ceasing the denial of registration of religious groups.”
He added that “the recommendations of the committee clarify Algeria’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“Now, the WEA and our partners hope that the Algerian government, in the same spirit of its constructive dialogue with the Human Rights Committee, will implement the recommendations and honour its international obligations embodied in the ICCPR.”
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 15 July, 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.