The Cathedral Notre Dame d’Afrique (Our Lady of Africa), in Algiers. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

Five Algerian Christians accused of “proselytism” will appear in court on 6 November, in Bouira, in Algeria’s north-eastern region of Kabylie. They had been due to appear yesterday (9 October), but the hearing was postponed.

The five, including three members of the same family, are all from the town of Bechloul (Bouira province), a hundred kilometres south-east of Algiers, the capital.

They are accused of “inciting a Muslim to change his religion” – a criminal offence under the penal code – and “performing religious worship in an unauthorized place” (contravening the 2006 ordinance governing non-Muslim worship).

The charges follow accusations made in July 2018 by a woman (aged 40) whose husband (50) had converted to Christianity.

The woman filed a complaint against him, and also against a Christian family that had tried to mitigate a conflict between her and her husband, accusing them of “wanting to pressure her to become a Christian.”

Meanwhile, in a separate case, a Christian from the eastern city of Tizi Ouzou has again been charged with “illegal importation of Christian materials.”

Idir Hamdad, 29, had previously been tried and acquitted, but the prosecutor has appealed the decision.

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

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

Algerian Christian Idir Hamdad (World Watch Monitor)
Algerian Christian Idir Hamdad (World Watch Monitor)

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

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.

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.

This has prompted the UN Human Rights Committee to call on the Algerian government to stop harassing its Christian minority.

The UNHRC reviewed 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.

Algeria is 42nd on the 2018 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian.