Algeria: Christians Sentenced for Spreading Faith

Friday, July 4, 2008

Converts from Islam report discrimination following convictions.

ISTANBUL, July 3 (Compass Direct News) -- A court in western Algeria convicted two Muslim converts to Christianity yesterday for illegally spreading their faith.

The court in Tissemsilt, 110 miles southwest of Algiers, handed Rachid Muhammad Essaghir, 37, and Djallal Dhamani six-month suspended sentences and 100,000-dinar (US$1,660) fines. The men were found guilty of “distributing documents to shake the faith of Muslims.”

“Once they get the written sentence, they will appeal straight away,” close friend of Essaghir told Compass following the trial.

The case has received both local and international publicity following a wave of trials this year against Algerian Christians for evangelism and illegally practicing their faith.

In most cases the Christians have been charged under a presidential decree from February 2006 that restricts religious worship to government approved buildings. The decree, known as Ordinance 06-03, also outlaws any attempt to convert Muslims to another faith.

Though no Christian has yet served jail time on religious charges, several still on trial or appealing their convictions have said that negative publicity has damaged their businesses and family life.

Habiba Kouider, facing a three-year sentence after police stopped her while she was carrying several Christian books, has been kicked out of her family’s home. Kouider’s brothers learned about her conversion to Christianity after her case sparked national and international media attention.

“When her brother found out she was a Christian, he commanded her to leave the house without worrying about what would happen to her,” an assistant to defense lawyer Khelloudja Khalfoun’s wrote in an e-mail last month. The convert to Christianity is temporarily staying with another sister while searching for more permanent accommodations.

Chaban Beikel, a pastry maker, was fired after his boss discovered that he was one of four Protestants convicted of evangelism in Tiaret city last month, the same source said.

Third Conviction

For Essaghir, yesterday’s ruling is his third conviction for illegal religious activity this year.

Police had stopped Essaghir and Dahmani in the vicinity of Tissemsilt in June 2007 while transporting a box of Christian literature in one of their cars. Unknown to them, the two men were convicted in absentia in November 2007 and each given two-year sentences and 5,000-euro fines.

After discovering the court ruling in May 2008, the Protestants requested a retrial, their right under Algerian law.

At a hearing in Tissemsilt last week, the state prosecutor backed down from the initial jail sentence and fine, not requesting any punishment for the men. The move gave defense lawyer Khalfoun hope that her clients would be acquitted.

“It could have possibly been an order from someone above him,” Khalfoun’s assistant wrote, speculating on the prosecutor’s retreat from the previous verdict.

Essaghir was also previously convicted with Beikel in June on charges of evangelism and handed a six-month suspended sentence and a 200,000-dinar (US$3,282) fine.

In February Essaghir 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.

In a written verdict published on May 28, the three men were handed three-year suspended sentences and 500-euro fines. The Christians’ appeal is due to be heard on July 15.

‘God Is In Control’

Essaghir has now moved from Tiaret to the coastal city of Oran with his wife and 1-year-old daughter after police shut down his Internet café in April.

Officials closed the business for failure to obtain necessary written permission from local police. But Essaghir said that this was just an excuse to harass him for his work as an evangelist, as many Internet cafés in Algeria function without such permission.

“Essaghir is doing very well, it’s a miracle,” said his close friend, who spoke with the Christian following yesterday’s trial. Despite his numerous convictions, the friend said, “he doesn’t care anymore; God is in control.”

Algerian government officials claim that Christians are not discriminated against in the North African country. In recent months several officials have made statements that the aim of certain evangelical missionaries in Algeria is to politically destabilize the country.

Copyright © 2008 Compass Direct News