Analysis: Spurt in Christian Persecution in Algeria Needs Attention

By: Religious Liberty Partnership, Fernando Perez

Three months after Algeria officially lifted its 19-year-old state of emergency following public protests inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has made it clear his regime will continue to impose restrictions.

Three months after Algeria officially lifted its 19-year-old state of emergency following public protests inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has made it clear his regime will continue to impose restrictions. Last week, authorities in eastern Béjaïa Province ordered closure of all seven Protestant churches. And three days later, a court sentenced a Christian man to five years in prison and a fine of 20,000 Algerian Dinars (US$280) in western Oran Province.

Mustapha Krim, the president of Eglise Protestante d’Algérie or EPA (the Protestant Church in Algeria) was served a notice sent by the police on the instruction of the administrative head of Béjaïa Province on May 22. The communiqué – a copy of which WEA-RLC has obtained – stated that all places of non-Muslim worship that have not been authorised by the government will be permanently closed. Its language suggests that the government intends to close “unauthorised” places of worship “throughout the national territory” under a 2006 law.

On May 25, a criminal court in Oran’s Djamel District convicted an Algerian Christian, Siagh Krimo, for sharing his faith with and giving a Christian CD to his Muslim neighbour. Krimo, who was arrested on April 14 and is currently on bail, was given a harsh sentence despite the prosecutor’s failure to produce a witness or any evidence. A local Christian leader told WEA-RLC that he suspected pressure from high officials for Krimo’s conviction. Krimo has time until the end of this week to challenge his conviction.

In April, another Protestant church, in Makouda area in northern Tizi Ouzou Province, was served a similar notice under the 2006 law, but the authorities had not taken any action until the writing of this report.

Close to 99 percent of the 35.7 million people in Algeria are Muslim, predominantly Sunni. It is estimated that there are around 50,000 Protestants and roughly 45,000 Catholics.

According to the 2006 law – known as “Ordinance 06-03” and implemented in 2008 – any religious activity not regulated by the state is a crime. The law requires non-Muslim faiths to be practised only in state-approved places, and created a national commission on religious faiths, empowered to regulate the registration of religious associations.

The EPA, which has several churches under it, is registered with the government. But the government apparently still requires all places of worship to be “approved” by the authorities under the vaguely worded law. It is also unclear whether subordinate bodies under a registered religious organisation are also deemed as illegal.

In a report in August 2010, Amnesty International noted, “...Since the promulgation of Ordinance 06-03, the authorities have consistently refused to register Protestant churches, forcing Protestant communities in Algeria, wishing to exercise their legitimate right to manifest their religion or belief, to worship in places not approved by the state, thereby risking prosecution under the law.” To delay registration of non-Muslim organisations, the government typically uses the excuse that an amendment to the 1973 law on associations is pending.

The constitution of Algeria protects religious freedom of non-Muslims. But it also states that Islam is the state religion and prohibits institutions from engaging in behaviour incompatible with Islamic morality – which paved the way for the state to ban evangelistic efforts with Muslims.

The three incidents – the two separate orders for the closure of churches in the provinces of Béjaïa and Tizi Ouzou, and the conviction of a man for evangelism in Oran – are part of “a campaign against the Christian faith,” a Christian leader told WEA-RLC.

WEA-RLC suspects that the crackdown on Christians and their organisations is an attempt to prevent the church from growing in the absence of restrictions that were supposed to follow the lifting of the state of emergency on February 24, 2011. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s regime had been restricting freedom of speech and assembly for two decades in the name of combating an Islamist insurgency.

A civil war between the military government and Islamist groups caused over 200,000 deaths and the disappearance of more than 7,000 people – many of them civilians – in the 1990s, rights groups say. The insurgency greatly diminished soon but Bouteflika refused to lift emergency as imposing restrictions helped him to remain in power since 1999.

It appears that President Bouteflika – who has not been very popular thanks to corruption and neglect of people’s needs by his government – wants to continue to infuse fear among the people lest they cause an uprising against his rule, the way people did in other countries in the region. Though a multi-party system of democracy, the Algerian government has been authoritarian and given little political and civil rights to its people in the garb of fighting Islamist extremism.

Although the state of emergency has been lifted, the government is not likely to respect human rights. However, the United States, as an ally, is in a position to help the people of Algeria have the rights they deserve.

The US-Algeria relations have improved tremendously following the September 11, 2001 attacks. Algeria has, since then, been supportive of the international war against terrorism and allowed the official US presence to expand.

Will Washington ask Bouteflika to show improvement in the country’s human rights record? Or will the US be lenient towards the Algerian government to continue to solicit cooperation in fighting anti-US Islamists in that country? Rights groups should press for the former.