Algeria: Christian Charged with Evangelism -- Again

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Already twice convicted, church elder faces another trial tomorrow.

ISTANBUL (Compass Direct News) -- Convicted of blasphemy and evangelism in two separate cases this year, an Algerian Christian goes on trial in west Algeria for a third time tomorrow, again for evangelism.

Rachid Muhammad Essaghir (previously reported as Seghir), 37, will be tried in Tissemsilt, 110 miles southwest of Algiers, for “distributing documents to shake the faith of Muslims.”

An evangelist and church elder for a small community of Muslim converts to Christianity in Tiaret, Essaghir believes that local police have targeted him for his religious work.

Police stopped Essaghir and another Christian in the vicinity of Tissemsilt in June 2007 and discovered a box of Christian books in their car. The two men said they were transporting the literature from one church to another.

Under Ordinance 06-03 passed in February 2006, Algerians can be fined up to 1 million dinars (US$16,405) and sentenced to five years in prison for printing, storing or distributing materials intended to convert Muslims away from Islam.

A state prosecutor in Tissemsilt charged Essaghir and the other Christian, identified only as Djallal, with distributing books to “shake the faith of Muslims.” But after an initial hearing in September 2007, Essaghir said that the court hearings were discontinued and he assumed that the charges had been dropped.

But last month police in Tiaret arrested Djallal and transferred him to Tissemsilt, where officials had issued an arrest warrant for the June 2007 incident. Officials held the Christian from May 22 until May 25, denying him his legal right to contact a lawyer.

Three days later Essaghir and Djallal attended a hearing in Tissemsilt to find the court-house full of journalists, an eyewitness at the May 28 hearing said.

A number of trials against Christians in the area, including a separate case against Essaghir the previous day in Tiaret, had sparked national media interest. Numerous articles in both the local and international press called on the government to improve its treatment of Christians.

The eyewitness said that the Tissemsilt court postponed Essaghir’s May 28 hearing in order to avoid creating similar publicity.

But a member of defense lawyer Khelloudja Khalfoun’s legal team said today that the official reason for the delay was because the two Christians’ criminal records were not available at last month’s hearing.

The three cases against Essaghir have all taken place in the past year.

Against Evangelism

In February the church leader and two other Christians were charged with “blaspheming the name of the Prophet [Muhammad] and Allah” and threatening the life of a convert to Christianity who later returned to Islam.

The convert, Shamouma Al Aid, had professed Christianity from July 2004 through July 2006 when he attended a church near Oran city. It was there that he met Essaghir and the two others, against whom he later filed the blasphemy complaint.

In a written verdict published on May 28, the three Christians were handed a three-year suspended sentence and a 500-euro fine.

In a separate incident, police arrested Essaghir and five other men as they left a prayer meeting at Essaghir’s house in Tiaret on May 9. Held for 24 hours without being allowed to contact a lawyer, the men were charged with “distributing documents to shake the faith of Muslims.”

On June 3 the Tiaret court convicted four of the six, handing Essaghir the harshest sentence: a six-month suspended sentence and a 200,000-dinar (US$3,282) fine. Two men who said they were not Christians, but rather Muslims who had been attending the meeting to learn more about Christianity, were acquitted.

Following international outcry over the ruling, a government minister attempted to say that Christian evangelization in Algeria was not about religion, but rather about political gain.

“They use religion to achieve their purposes, just as what happened with terrorist groups,” Religious Affairs Minister Bu’Abdallah Ghoulamullah reportedly said.

According to the June 7 article in the Arabic daily Echerouk, the minister claimed that the aims of people behind “evangelization campaigns” in Algeria were the same as those of terrorists.

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