Algeria: Why Authorities Have Begun Clamping Down on Christians

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

ALGIERS, Algeria (Compass Direct News) -- The debate was urgent and often heated at the annual meeting of the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) earlier this month. The looming question: whether to obey or disobey government orders that have closed over half of the North African country’s 50 Protestant churches in the past six months.

Algerian pastors argued the merits of reopening all their churches in a unified protest before EPA leadership elected to leave the difficult decision in the hands of each congregation.

“We have two choices: close down and hand over the keys, or we fight until the end when we get our rights,” said Mustapha Krim, president of the Protestant umbrella network. “Each church should decide for itself.”

Most of the closures stem from enforcement of Ordinance 06-03, a law restricting worship of non-Muslims passed in February 2006 but not enforced until this year. In addition to church closures, Protestants have been arrested in western Algeria as they travel between cities or exit religious meetings, and Catholics have been prevented from regular ministry activities outside their church walls.

Such restriction of religious freedoms has coincided with a barrage of antagonistic articles in Arabic newspapers, heightening tensions between Christians and Muslims in the Islamic Mediterranean nation.

Christians in Algeria have endured tougher times, including the country’s guerilla war for independence from France in the 1950s and its violent civil conflict of the 1990s – fueled by religious extremists – that claimed upwards of 100,000 lives. But today’s challenges are in some ways more ominous.

“This is the most pressure Christians have faced in Algeria,” said Farid Bouchama, an Algerian televangelist living in France. “Before it was discrimination from families or jobs, but this is the first organized pressure from the state.”

Government officials assert that they are simply placing Christians under the same restrictions that govern Muslim worship in order to guard against religious extremism. But officials have also made public remarks that equate Christian evangelism with terrorism and support the popular perception – fueled by the Arabic press campaign – that the Islamic identity of Algeria is under threat.

“This is very new, to be considered as an enemy of the country,” said one Catholic leader. “In the past, priests and sisters were considered good persons. Now we are ‘missionaries,’ and thus dangerous.”

Obstacles to Reopening

Protestant pastors seeking to reopen their churches legally have encountered conflicting instructions and bureaucratic runarounds from local authorities.

“People are asking if the EPA is legal or not. Sometimes I ask the same question,” said Krim. “The government has not given us a straight answer.”

At least four EPA churches have remained open, disputing the legal basis for their closure. One long-standing church in Ouadhia reports visiting the local governor 12 times for approval and each time receiving new orders for changes to paperwork.

“Churches are trying to be good – to have a legal existence – but there is no answer from the authorities,” said an EPA leader. “It’s a big confusion. We don’t know what door to knock on, because nobody wants to answer.”

Krim said the EPA has done all it can to ensure that its member churches, most of which meet in homes or converted garages, are legal. Protestant leaders have met with government officials while also mobilizing international pressure through Algerian Christians living in France. The strategy that emerged from the general assembly this May: Go to the Algerian religious minister with a dossier of registration papers for each church group and collectively appeal for legal status – and if denied yet again, then take their case to the local and foreign press.

Most church closures have occurred in the eastern region of Kabylie, a mountainous area dominated by ethnic minority Berbers. “We are not free to live our faith freely,” said one Kabylie pastor. In addition to church closures, Protestants report experiencing police harassment, lost employment, and family conflicts resulting in legal disputes.

Pretext for Harassment

At least 12 Protestants in the western Arab region of Algeria have been detained or convicted this year, most in reference to Ordinance 06-03.

Some report being stopped at checkpoints while traveling and arrested for possession of personal Bibles around Tiaret, a conservative Islamic agricultural community. Others report being lured into giving Bibles to undercover police. Those arrested have received steep fines and suspended prison sentences, placing them at risk of imprisonment from false accusations.

Some observers suggest these are cases of local officials over-applying the vaguely-worded 2006 law, which confines non-Muslim worship to specific buildings approved by the state and establishes steep criminal penalties for proselytizing and distributing or storing religious literature. The ordinance drew criticism from U.S. and European leaders for what the U.S. 2007 International Religious Freedom report identified as “vague wordings that render it susceptible to arbitrary interpretations and applications.”

Others say the ordinance is being intentionally used to crack down on Christians.

“The law is an excuse to enter our realm,” said a Christian leader near Tiaret whose house church has stopped meeting together. “Without the law we wouldn’t have any problems.”

Troubled Catholics

Problems for Catholics thus far have not been as severe as those experienced by Protestants, yet the vagueness of Ordinance 06-03 and its potential for over-zealous application by local authorities looms large. Some clergymen fear the worst.

“We have to be careful, because if this law is fully put into practice, we could lose everything – even the Mass,” said one Catholic leader.

The case of a Catholic priest arrested in December for praying with Cameroon migrants on the Algerian border – as priests have regularly done for a decade – is on appeal to the Algerian supreme court. Meanwhile authorities have placed other restrictions upon Catholics, citing Ordinance 06-03.

For the first time in 30 years, priests were prohibited from celebrating Christmas and Easter services for Italian expatriates working in Algeria’s petroleum industry. Nuns in Ouargla have been ordered to stop giving French lessons and running a library for university students. Clergy cannot obtain visas for visiting priests and must now ask government permission for what were common ministry activities, including yearly pilgrimages to shrines and visiting prisoners in jail.

“Everything now is changed,” said one Catholic leader.

Most of Algeria’s estimated 2,000 Catholics are foreign workers or African students and thus limited in defending their religious rights.

“We are afraid to speak, afraid to do anything,” said another Catholic leader. “I’m not afraid to go to jail, but I am afraid to be deported. I want to stay in Algeria. If my risk was only jail, I would be free.”

Catholic leaders believe the enforcement of Ordinance 06-03 is directed at controlling the Algerian Christian minority in Kabylie. “We Catholics are caught in between this law and its target,” said one Catholic leader. “They think all Christians are the same.”

By example, newspaper articles antagonistic towards Protestants are often illustrated with photos of Catholic churches and leaders. Catholic leaders interviewed suggest this stems from government misunderstandings of Catholic social work.

“They see our libraries and language lessons as attempts to convert Muslims,” said the Catholic leader. “They don’t understand why we do these things.”

Catholics remained intentionally in Algeria after the nation’s 1962 independence – when most French expatriates left – and stayed through the terrorism-filled 1990s in order to do social work.

“In a land where Christians live as a minority, they must testify to the first commandment of God,” said a Catholic leader. “We must put love of neighbor to work, even when it is not easy.”

Why Now?

Observers in Algeria are uncertain why the 2006 law is only now being enforced, as well as whether the pressure stems from top-down efforts by government officials to restrain Christian activity or from bottom-up populism against Christians inflamed by Arabic press accounts.

Some suggest political motivations are at play. Observers point out that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s gambit to change the constitution to allow him a third term in 2009 will require the support of Islamist political parties. Others believe the Algerian government fears the development of a sizable Christian minority in Kabylie, where Berbers have long been restive for greater autonomy.

Still others hold that the crackdown on Christianity may be intended to distract Algerians from pressing domestic concerns such as a national housing shortage and inflation of staple goods prices.

“Why focus on real problems when you can focus on straw men?” said one observer familiar with the political situation.

Christian leaders believe that the increased persecution comes less because Islamists are growing in power than because Christians converts are increasing in number, thanks to Algerian church planters and Christian satellite TV.

“They are afraid about what God is doing in Algeria,” said Bouchama, the France-based Algerian televangelist.

Protestant church planters have been active in recent years, claiming to launch dozens of churches as they travel and find converts already present in many towns thanks to Christian radio and satellite TV. Conservative estimates put Algerians Christians at 10,000 strong, largely concentrated in Kabylie where the non-Arab populace has proven more receptive to Christianity.

Protestants first established a foothold in Kabylie in the 1980s and grew in number through the 1990s while the government was occupied with domestic terrorism. While terrorist attacks continue in Algeria, relative to the ’90s concerns have begun to subside just as evangelism efforts have doubled the Protestant presence in Arab areas outside of Kabylie.

“Now the government has time to occupy itself with the problem of the church,” said one Christian leader in Kabylie. “The government didn’t care when Christians were only in Kabylie. But now we are in Arab places, the government cares.”

In April 2006, President Bouteflika publicly stated that Algeria’s democratic nature did not mean its citizens should “not react to the Christianization of our children.”

Newspaper articles have regularly called for the creation of a government committee to “fight the Christianization of Algeria.” Some Christian leaders believe such a group does exist and is behind the wave of press attacks claiming Christian churches offer visas or 5,000 euros for Muslim conversions.

“They are trying to scare people that Algeria is becoming Christian,” said an Algiers leader. “And they are trying to scare the Christians to stop evangelizing.”

Discrimination Denied

Algerian officials deny any discrimination against non-Muslims, asserting that Ordinance 06-03 places Christians under the same restrictions that govern Muslim worship for internal security concerns. The Algerian government strictly regulates the study and practice of Islam in schools and mosques in the wake of the 1990s civil conflict and continued acts of terrorism by Islamist extremists, including suicide car bombings that killed more than 30 people in Algiers in April 2007 and again in December 2007.

Christian leaders acknowledge that Islam is also regulated in practice but say the restrictions hit them harder – mainly because the Muslim government misunderstands Christianity.

Some confusion may stem from different definitions of what constitutes a “church” or “worship.” Protestant groups gathering in houses and garages are not valid churches in the eyes of the Algerian government. And visits by priests to pray with groups outside their churches do not constitute worship in the eyes of Catholics but appear to be deemed so by Muslim officials.

Christians also point out the lack of reciprocal legislation banning Muslim proselytism of non-Muslims.

Some Christian leaders expressed concern for how Christianity can be vibrant under the shadow of Ordinance 06-03.

“If the law is not removed, I don’t see how the church will survive in this place,” said one Christian leader in Algiers. “Those who are resisting may get tired, or the pressure from authorities may become greater.”

“Our fear is to become just the Mass – we don’t want to be just that,” said a Catholic leader. “All of our activities would be over. If the Catholic Church was only for Sundays or for foreigners, we couldn’t live.”

Hope of Legitimacy

The outlook for Algerian Christians is not all gloomy. Though Ordinance 06-03 is at the heart of current troubles, both Protestants and Catholics point out that the law establishes the legitimacy of Christianity in Algeria.

“The law tries to restrict our freedom, but it also makes us official,” said an Algiers leader. “They cannot say any more that there are no Christians in Algeria; if so, why is there a law?”

“This is a new state in the level of government recognition: ‘Christians are here in Algeria, and we need to deal with them,’” said Bouchama.

And the barrage of newspaper articles has raised the profile of the Christian faith among the Algerian populace. Some Christians speak of Muslims coming to churches for the euros that prospective converts are widely rumored to receive, and instead leaving with Bibles.

“The good part is the free publicity to the Christian church as people come to see what it is all about,” said one Protestant leader. “But the danger is from the stirring up of emotions and the possibility of fanatics taking things into their own hands.”

Protestant pastors report that the difficulties have also brought unity to their congregations. Many church bodies, composed mostly of Muslim converts, are now smaller but stronger.

“This is the good thing in hard times of persecution,” said one Algiers leader. “The people you cannot rely on will step back, while the people who are very strong will remain.”

Algerian church leaders are braced for further restrictions of their religious freedom, but most believe their government will prove responsive to international pressure.

“It’s good that Algeria knows that the world is looking at her,” said one Christian leader. “Even though we can’t see any fruits now, we would like to have more international pressure.”

Noted one Kabylie pastor, “If our brothers outside the country stop speaking out about this problem, I think the future will be very difficult for us.”

For now, most pastors interviewed expressed hope for the future. The daily attacks in Arabic press endured since January finally subsided this month. And they report that Algerians continue to come to faith through satellite TV and church planting efforts, bringing encouragement to their congregations in hard times.

One Kabylie pastor reported that his church building was closed in April, but today his 200 church members now meet in homes.

“They have closed one church, and now we have 10 churches,” he said. “The church is not the walls.”

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