Algeria: Severe New Penalties for Proselytising

Saturday, March 25, 2006

By Elizabeth Kendal
World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission (WEA RLC)
Special to ASSIST News Service

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA (ANS) -- A presidential order that establishes new conditions for the exercise of non-Muslim religious practice was passed in the Algerian Ummah council (Senate)on Monday 13 March, and in the Algerian National Assembly (Parliament) on 15 March. As a presidential order, the text would not have even been open to debate.

An article entitled "New sanctions concerning the illegal exercise of religious worship – Evangelicals under high surveillance", was published on 14 March in the French language Algerian newspaper 'Actualite'

In this article, writer Hamid Saidani laments, "The form chosen for the promulgation of this law closes the door to any debate on this subject which is extremely sensitive because it touches on a principle established by the fundamental law of the land, which is the freedom of worship and of conscience. The content of this legislative framework would certainly have been greatly benefited if the discussion had been allowed."

Saidani reports that the order, classified as No 06-03 and dated 28 February 2006, puts forward a number of arguments which call for the strengthening of the law regarding religious activities that could be considered as "missions of proselytising". According to Saidani the penal aspects of the text are, between a 2 and 5 year prison term and a fine of 50 to 100 million centimes (this amounts to approx. US$7,000 to US$14,000 (1 Algerian dinar = 100 centimes)) for anyone who "incites, constrains or uses seductive means seeking to convert a Muslim to another religion (...), or who produces, stores or distributes printed documents or audio-visual formats or any other format or means which seeks to shake the faith of a Muslim."

Saidani concludes: "It is certain that this legislation seeks to block proselytizing missions and missionaries led notably by American evangelical churches in certain regions of the country, however it remains vital that the texts be clear and explicit, and this so that the way will not be opened for the violation of individual and collective liberties established by the laws of the Republic which would be swallowed up by a revival of the demons of inquisition."

Arabic News reports that the new law "is an attempt to withstand the Christianizing campaign which had witnessed a notable activity recently especially in al-Qabayel area east of the country."

Arabic News also adds, "The law also bans practicing any religion 'except Islam' 'outside buildings allocated for that, and links specialized buildings aimed at practice of religion by a prior licensing.'

"One official at the ministry of religious affairs said that the aim of the law is basically to 'ban religious activity, and secret religious campaigns.'

"The Christian community constitutes the largest religious minority in the country. This community accounts for the time being to less than 11,000 after it was hundreds of thousands before Algeria's independence in 1962 including 110 priests and 170 monks distributed all over Algerian lands."

President Bouteflika's aggressive move against "missions of proselytising" is very surprising considering that as recently as December 2005 Algeria's Minister of Religious Affairs, Bouabdellah Ghamallah, told Al-Khabar newspaper that reports of increasing proselytisation of Algeria's Muslims were groundless. (Link 3)


In September 2005 Algerians voted overwhelmingly, through a referendum, to grant amnesty to Islamist fighters imprisoned during Algeria's civil conflict, in exchange for peace. The amnesty, part of President Bouteflika's Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, was approved by the government in February 2006, and the first wave of the 2,629 prisoners began to be released on 4 March. According to Cherif Quazani, some 10,000 condemned Islamists will eventually be released. Quazani writes (12 March) that it is inevitable that such a release of 10,000 prisoners who are "Islamists by nature" is cause for some apprehension. Quazani comments that no one can be sure that any of these Islamists have repented. He believes they view their release as a victory, adding that they left prison shouting "Allahou Akbar". (Link 4)

Critics fear that President Bouteflika's Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation seeks to whitewash years of suffering and that releasing Islamic extremists and allowing them home from exile could plant the seeds for future violence. As noted in a WEA RL Prayer bulletin of Sept 2005, genuine long-lasting peace will require a comprehensive restorative justice program as distinct from punitive or retributive justice. This would require the government follow up the amnesty with a truth commission that involves jihadists and security forces, and a comprehensive national
reconciliation program. Without these any peace will only be temporary as the sores will simply fester.

But of course the issue is even bigger even than this. In December 1991 Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) surged towards power heading for an absolute majority through democratic elections only to be stopped in its tracks by the military. The second round of voting was canceled and when the FIS was declared illegal January 1992 its partisans fled en masse to the mountains. The most radical element then began its activities as the GIA (Groupes armes islamiques, Armed Islamic Groups) and the more moderate element acted under the name MAI (Mouvement arme islamique, Armed Islamic Movement). What followed was a decade of civil conflict and horrific Islamic terrorism costing more than 150,000 lives.

However, Algeria's imprisoned Islamists would no doubt have been watching democracy in action in Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories and feeling quite encouraged. Regional politics has changed a lot since 1991.

It is one thing to surrender weapons and renounce violence, but quite another to surrender aims and renounce ideology. With democracy proving so effective at empowering and legitimising Islamists, even militant Islamists, maybe renouncing violence is not such a compromise. It may after all only prove to be a change of strategy, not a change of direction – Islamists simply need ride a different vehicle to power.


Hassan Moali wrote an article (20 February) entitled, "Islamist parties want to take hold of the mosques – The aggressions against Imams multiply", in which he alleges that Islamists are intimidating the imams not associated with their cause, infiltrating the religious associations of the mosques, and issuing threats by anonymous letters and even physical aggressions. (Link 5)

Hassan Moali claims that 20 percent of Algeria's 15,000 mosques are subject to threats and aggression from what he calls "the apostles of 'la religion partisane'". According to Moali, Islamists murdered at least ten imams in 2005, and that some were killed in their mosques in front of their congregations. Moali also asserts that courageous imams who refuse to preach the Islamist message are made the objects of devastating smear campaigns.

Moali notes that on average fourteen million Algerians would attend Friday prayer. And knowing the important role of the imam, it is easy to imagine what an appetite Islamist parties would have to control such a powerful reserve of political militant potential.

Hassan Moali names The Movement of Society for Peace (MSP: formerly Hamas) as being in the forefront of this conspiracy, adding that MSP president Bouguerra Soltani recently affirmed that his party aims to seize power in 2012.


President Bouteflika's Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation provides for the "banning of all exercise of political activity, whatever form it may take, by those responsible for the exploitation of our religion." This provision basically bans political activity by those who have committed terrorist acts. (Link 6)

Regardless of this, some very senior militant Islamists are seeking "political rehabilitation". Ali Benhadj, deputy leader of the FIS is one (Link 7), and Abdelhak Layada, one of the founding leaders of Algeria's Islamic Armed Group (GIA), is another. (Link 8)

The GIA has sought not only to create an Islamist state but to rid Algeria of Jews and Christians. According to the Terrorism Knowledge Database ten percent of all GIA attacks have been directed at religious targets. On 23 October 1994 GIA shot dead two Spanish nuns leaving a chapel in Algiers. In December 1994 GIA militants killed four Catholic priests of the Order of White Fathers, in a machine-gun attack at their mission in Tizi-Ouzou. GIA then faxed news organisations claiming that the killings were part of their campaign of "annihilation and physical liquidation of Christian crusaders".

On 3 September 1995 GIA killed two more nuns in Algiers. Then on 10 November 1995 GIA shot two French nuns (one fatally) of the Little Sisters Sacred Heart as they left their home in the Kouba district of Algiers. In May 1996 GIA claimed responsibility for the kidnap, murder and beheading of seven French Trappist monks from a monastery in Medea. On 1 August 1996 a GIA bomb exploded in the home of the French bishop in Oran, killing him and his driver. The Bishop had just returned from a ceremony commemorating the deaths of the seven monks a year earlier.

Abdelhak Layada was released from his prison cell on Monday 13 March. He commented on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's Charter to Asharq Alawsat newspaper saying, "It is a significant positive step towards achieving peace but it is incomplete because it closes the door of political participation in front of us." Layada indicated he would consider returning to politics in the future. He expressed his belief that the GIA and the FIS are the key to resolving Algeria's conflict.

In the meantime, Layada has said he will co-operate with the government to achieve peace. He is offering to mediate between the government and the militants still at large. A questions opens up before us though, particularly in the light of the government's about face concerning "missions of proselytism", and the new measures against them. To what extent has the amnesty been a quid pro quo deal – is the government going to have to co-operate with Islamist? Or maybe there has not been any quid pro quo deal – perhaps President Bouteflika knowing the nature of the Islamists he is releasing is just removing a 'provocation'. Whatever the reason for these new measures, the Church in Algeria is about to face a whole new level of persecution.