Algerian Law Against the Religious Freedom of Christians

Algerian Law Against the Religious Freedom of Christians

By Thibault van den Bossche1703257200000

Algeria is doing everything to limit the religious freedom of Christians, believing that it is preserving its national identity as an Islamic country. On 27 November 2023, the Vice President of the Protestant Church of Algeria was sentenced on appeal to one year in prison and a fine of 100,000 dinars for conducting an unauthorized worship service in an unauthorized building. Despite the arbitrary imprisonment of Christians and church closures, the indigenous Evangelical community is growing.

Article originally published in French geopolitical journal "Conflits."

In Algeria, the development of an indigenous Evangelical community, with about 100,000 believers today, has been a concern for the authorities since the 2000s. The Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) consists of 47 churches, most of which are located in the Kabylie region. The authorities are suspicious of Christians, easily associating them with separatists of "this region marked by a Berberist militancy historically opposed to central power," according to researcher Fatiha Kaouès.

In response to the increasing conversions, Algeria has taken a series of repressive measures with essentially anti-Christian aims. "The government views Christianity as a danger to the Algerian Islamic identity and makes every attempt to regulate the church into non-existence," explains International Christian Concern in its 2023 report. Open Doors ranks Algeria 19th in its 2023 World Watch List of Christian persecution.

Bouabdellah Ghlamallah, the former Minister of Religious Affairs and Wakfs, declared in February 2010 that "no one wants religious minorities in Algeria because this could be a pretext for foreign powers to interfere in the country's internal affairs under the guise of protecting minority rights." As a result, Algeria has been on the watch list of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) since 2021 "for engaging in severe religious freedom violations."

The prohibition of "undermining the faith of a Muslim"

Since the ordinance of 28 February 2006, which sets the conditions and rules for the practice of worship other than Muslim, it is prohibited to "convert a Muslim to another religion" or to "undermine the faith of a Muslim" (Article 11). Thus, in January 2021, Mohammed Derrab was sentenced to 18 months in prison for preaching outside his church, which had been closed by the authorities, and for giving a Bible to a listener.

Similarly, Pastor and bookseller Rachid Seighir and his assistant Nouh Hamimi were sentenced on appeal on 6 June 2021, to one year of suspended sentence and a fine of 200,000 dinars because they had distributed Christian books in their bookstore. The European Center for Law and Justice (ECLJ) had already criticized the initial verdict of 27 February 2021.

Article 144 bis 2 of the Algerian Penal Code punishes "anyone who offends the prophet and messengers of God or denigrates the doctrines or precepts of Islam." Hamid Soudad, a converted Christian, was sentenced in January 2021 to the maximum penalty of five years in prison for posting a caricature of the prophet of Islam on Facebook. He was eventually pardoned in July 2023.

The sanction also applies to Muslims, such as Islamic scholar Saïd Djebelkhir, who was sentenced in April 2021 to three years in prison for saying that certain Muslim practices predate Islam and have pagan origins. Thanks to international mobilization, in which the ECLJ participated, Saïd Djabelkhir was acquitted by the Court of Appeal in Algiers on 1st February 2023.

All these convictions are a logical continuation of the suppression of the freedom of conscience in the new Algerian Constitution of 2020. Although Article 51 states that "the freedom of opinion is inviolable" and that "the freedom of worship is guaranteed, and it is exercised in accordance with the law," these freedoms do not mean "the guarantee of freedom of conscience, which is the right to believe or not to believe and to change one's religion," according to Islamic scholar Razika Adnani.

The increasing number of church closures

On 2 June 2021, the church of Pastor Rachid Seighir and two other churches were closed for "non-compliance with current laws." The 2006 ordinance requires the registration of buildings intended for worship (Article 5) and strict control over the creation, approval, and operation of religious associations (Article 6). However, the churches had to start their procedures from scratch due to the new law on associations of 12 January 2012.

This law allows Algerian authorities to arbitrarily refuse to register an association if they decide that its purpose and activities are contrary to the "constants and national values, as well as public order, good morals, and the provisions of laws and regulations in force" in Algeria (Article 2).

According to Human Rights Watch, this law plunges associations into a "legal limbo" and limits "their ability to receive foreign funding or to hold public meetings." As a result, "Associations trying to register get lost in a bureaucratic labyrinth, unable to file their applications and sometimes obliged to work in the margins of the law."

Ultimately, “these restrictions have, in turn, resulted in criminal charges against members of these associations on the grounds of having convened and practiced religious rituals in non-authorized places of worship”, laments the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, following his official visit to Algeria in September 2023.

Most recently, on 27 November 2023, the Vice President of the Protestant Church of Algeria, Pastor Youssef Ourahmane, was sentenced in appeal to one year of imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 dinars for conducting an unauthorized worship service in a building not permitted for this purpose. In March 2023, he had overseen a few Christian families on vacation in a parish complex that housed a chapel closed by the authorities.

Furthermore, the churches closed during the Covid-19 pandemic have still not been reopened. To this day, around thirty churches, or two-thirds of the EPA churches, are unable to gather. Most Christians gather in houses to protect themselves. The threat also looms over the Catholic Church, which experienced the closure of Caritas, its humanitarian service deployed for 60 years, in September 2022.

The double standard of Algeria against Christians

In its 2023 report, USCIRF denounces "a biased government double standard specifically against the EPA." Indeed, following the arrest of its president, Pastor Salaheddine Chalah, in November 2021, the Algerian justice system condemned the pastor as a "clergyman," while refusing to register the EPA as a religious organization.

During the Universal Periodic Review of Algeria by the United Nations Human Rights Council in November 2022, stakeholders like the ECLJ expressed concern about the extent of anti-Christian measures. The Permanent Representative of Algeria to the United Nations in Geneva cynically responded, "Islam, which is the religion of over 90% of the Algerian population, is still regulated: authorizations are required for anything related to the construction and opening of a mosque, as well as the collection of money for this purpose; and one must also be trained to preach in a mosque. What applies to Islam applies to all other religions present in Algeria. Therefore, it is not fair to speak of religious discrimination in Algeria."

"Despite freedom of worship and religion being enshrined in the new Constitution," the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern about "discrimination against religious minorities and the closure of non-Muslim places of worship." His concern must be turned into action. Since January 2023, Algeria has been one of the 47 members of the Human Rights Council. In addition, from January 2024, Algeria will join the Security Council as a non-permanent member for two years. The Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ms Nazila Ghanea, must take advantage of this opportunity to make an official visit to Algeria, the last visit on this matter going back to September 2002.

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