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Hard times for evangelicals in Algeria

Latest update : 2008-03-26

Algerian authorities are cracking down on evangelical churches. The country's minister of religious affairs has equated evangelical protestantism with "terrorism."

After closing ten Protestant churches on the grounds that they were proselytizing, the Algerian government has threatened to expel Father Hugh Johnson, an American priest based in the northwestern city of Oran for 45 years. The minister of religious affairs, Bouabdellah Ghlamallah, has equated Christian evangelism with “terrorism.”


The Algerian government accuses Christian evangelists of taking proselytism nationwide. In Algeria, Islam is the state religion, and the overwhelming majority of Algerians are Sunni muslims. Other faiths can register for official status and are allowed to practice provided they do not recruit converts. But since 2001, North American evangelical priests have been increasingly active, especially in the Berber region of Kabylie.


According to Mustapha Krim, president of Protestant churches in Algeria, authorities in Tizi-Ouzou, capital of Kabylie, recently suspended two churches.  He added that at Fort-National, the director of the church was taken into police custody and was ordered to comply with a new law adopted in February 2006 that established stiff penalties for non-muslim religions believed to be proselytising. According to the law, “any person trying to incite, force or lure a Muslim to convert to another religion," faces between two and five years of prison and must pay a fine of 5,000-10,000 euros.


Eight other churches have been closed in the country since the beginning of the year, according to Krim, making a total of 10.


Last week eight Swiss nationals, who planned to address seminaries in Kabylie, were asked to quit the region by the police, according to reports on the website


Pierre Wallez, a Catholic priest living in Algeria for many years, was sentenced to one year in prison on Jan. 30, 2008 by a court in the northwestern town of Maghnia.  Wallez was accused of ministering in December 2007 to Cameroonian Christian immigrants, an act the court equated with proselytism.


In Oran, Father Hugh Johnson, retired since 2006, faces a threat of being expelled at any time. Johnson has filed an appeal and awaits a verdict.


“The campaign will die out”


Algerian officials and Muslim leaders accuse North American evangelists of taking advantage of citizens’ social problems to convert them to Christianity, luring them with money and promises.


Writing in the newspaper L'Expression earlier this month, Ghlamallah, the religious affairs minister, said that people practising their faith in unlicensed churches are "outlaws."  He continued: “I equate evangelism with terrorism. The campaign is going to last a hundred years, two hundred years. It’s going to be hard but it will die out. I’ve asked the imams to remind the people that pastors don’t come to Algeria because they love the country, or because they love Christianity. They come here to create minorities, which would give foreign countries a pretext to interfere in our internal affairs to protect minorities.”  


Abderrahmane Chibane, president of the Association of Algerian Muslim Ulemas (scholars), suggested in the newspaper El Watan that the North American missionaries who visit Algeria "belong to neo-conservative groups" - an apparent reference to the expansionist foreign policy espoused by many of the advisers close to US President George Bush in the run-up to the Iraq war.


Article 2 of Algeria’s constitution establishes Islam as the state religion. Algerians are prohibited from adopting another religion, on pain of being tried for apostasy.


But since 2001, a new religious phenomenon has emerged in Algeria, especially in the Kabylie region. Evangelist priests have been looking to convert Muslims to Christianity. According to the country’s Religious Affairs Ministry, there are approximately 50,000 followers of the evangelical church, with 10,000 practicing Christians grouped into 33 communities. There are no independent figures available.


A law 'from the Middle Ages'


“No matter what the figure is, the reasons to convert have mulitiplied since 2001”, says Christophe Courou, director of relations with Islam for France's Conference of Bishops. “It’s the influence of the media and evangelical websites, trauma caused by ten years of terrorism and the need to find a new path in life by choosing to follow Christ,” Courou told FRANCE 24.


Courou wonders how 33 Christian communities can challenge 32,000 mosques across the country. He says: “There is nothing alarming about this. The government is focusing on this issue to cover up its failures. And foreigners are always the scapegoat.”


In a telephone conversation from Kabylie, Krim told FRANCE 24 the 2006 law is "like something from the Middle Ages." He went on: “It is clear that the problems that Christians face seem to be linked to a deal between the Islamists and the government. It’s time for a public debate on freedom of religion and faith in Algeria as provided in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Date created : 2008-03-26