Algeria: Christians Found Guilty of Proselytizing Muslims

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Four defendants receive fines and suspended sentences, two others acquitted.

ISTANBUL (Compass Direct News) -- An Algerian court gave four Christians suspended sentences and fines today for seeking to convert Muslims to Christianity, a Protestant church leader said.

The case is one of several that have sparked local media and French government claims that Algeria is repressing its Christian minority, which numbers 10,000 according to conservative estimates.

A court in Tiaret city, 150 miles southwest of Algiers, gave Rachid Muhammad Seghir a six-month suspended sentence and a 200,000-dinar (US$3,282) fine. He was originally charged with “distributing documents to shake the faith of Muslims.”

Chabane Beikel, Abdelhak Rebeih and Djillali Saibi were each given two-month suspended sentences and 100,000-dinar fines (US$1,640), according to Saibi. In an e-mail to Compass, he said that two other men on trial, Mohamed Khene and Abdelkader Hori, were acquitted.

Under Ordinance 06-03, passed in February 2006, attempts to convert Muslims to another religion can be punished with up to five years imprisonment and a 1 million-dinar (US$16,407) fine. The new law appears to contradict Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Algeria is a signatory, asserting that religious freedom includes the right to manifest one’s religion or belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching.

“[We] call on the highest authorities of the state to put an end to the persecution that targets the Christian community and to ensure its right to the free exercise of worship,” Mustapha Krim, president of the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA), said in a statement following today’s ruling.

In response to criticism, government officials have said that Christians are subject to the same legal restrictions as those imposed on Muslims in the Muslim-majority nation. They claimed last week that Protestant evangelists were seeking to divide Algeria by using conversions to create a new religious minority.

Conviction Without Evidence

Police detained the six defendants as they were leaving a prayer meeting at one of the men’s homes in Tiaret on May 9.

At their initial hearing on May 27, a state prosecutor raised additional charges that the men were holding an illegal religious meeting. He demanded two-year jail sentences and 500,000-dinar (US$8,145) fines for each of the six.

Ordinance 06-03 also requires that non-Muslim religious services be held in government-approved locations intended exclusively for worship.

Defense lawyer Khelloudja Khalfoun said that all six of her clients should have been freed because there was no evidence against them.

“Among these six, none was stopped in possession of a Christian book,” Khalfoun said, also noting that they were not preaching to Muslims when police detained them.

But Larbi Drissi, a lawyer representing the Ministry of Religious Affairs, said that the ministry was satisfied with the verdict, Reuters reported.

“At the end of the day what we want is that people, irrespective of their religion, practice religion under the framework of the law,” the lawyer said.

Since February, at least 10 Protestants living in or visiting Tiaret have been detained or convicted on religious charges.

Habiba Kouider, a female convert to Christianity, awaits a ruling in the Tiaret court on charges of illegally practicing her faith. Krim of the EPA said that police body-searched and interrogated her for two hours Sunday (June 1) in a public street in Tiaret.

At least half of the country’s 50 Protestant congregations have received closure orders, many of them based on Ordinance 06-03, according to Krim.

Speaking Saturday (May 31) in response to criticism surrounding the court cases, Algeria’s top Islamic authority accused Christian evangelists of a “new form of colonization.”

A former French colony, Algeria gained its independence in 1962.

“Their distant political goal is to create a Christian minority,” Abu Amran Chikh of the Higher Islamic Council told daily El Khabar. “Moreover, the evangelist movement is characterized by a secret activity that violates the Koran and the Sunna in one way or another.”

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