In March 2006, the Algerian legislature passed a bill confining non-Islamic religious practice. Here is some background and history leading up to the new legislation:
The vast majority of Christians and Jews fled the country following independence from France in 1962. Many of those who remained left in the 1990s due to violent acts of terrorism committed by Islamic extremists. As a result, the number of Christians and Jews in the country was significantly lower than the estimated total before 1992. According to Christian community leaders, Methodists and members of other Protestant denominations accounted for the largest numbers of non-Muslims, followed by Roman Catholics and Seventh-day Adventists. It was estimated that there were three thousand members of evangelical churches (mostly in the Kabylie region) and approximately three-hundred Catholics. A significant proportion of the country’s Christian residents were students and illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa en route to Europe; their numbers were difficult to estimate accurately.
For security reasons, due mainly to the civil conflict, Christians concentrated in the large cities of Algiers, Annaba, and Oran in the mid-1990s. During the period covered by this report, evangelical proselytizing has led to increases in the size of the Christian community in the eastern, Berber region of Kabylie. The number of “house churches,” where members meet secretly in the homes of fellow members for fear of exposure or because they cannot finance the construction of a church, has reportedly increased in the region. Reporting suggests that citizens themselves, not foreigners, make up the majority of those actively proselytizing in Kabylie.
Only one missionary group operated in the country on a full-time basis. Other evangelical groups traveled to and from the country, but they are not established. While most Christians did not proselytize actively, they reported that conversions took place.
There was no active Jewish community, although a very small number of Jews continue to live in Algiers. Since 1994, the size of the Jewish community has diminished to virtual nonexistence due to fears of terrorist violence, and the synagogue in Algiers was closed. A number of Jews of local origin living abroad have visited the country in the past two years. A group visited Oran in 2004, and their visit was well received by local authorities. In May 2005, another group of 130 visited Tlemcen for the first time in more than forty years and met with former Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella.
During the reporting period, the Government increased requirements for religious organizations to register, increased punishments for individuals who proselytize Muslims, and made regulations on the importation of religious texts more stringent. On March 20, 2006, Parliament approved a controversial new law, Ordinance 06-03, which regulates non-Muslim worship and was scheduled to be implemented beginning in September 2006. The first four articles of the ordinance reiterate that the state religion is Islam and guarantee the freedom to exercise religious worship in the framework of the constitution, the laws and regulations in force, public order, good moral standards, and the fundamental rights and liberties “of third parties.” It also guarantees tolerance and respect “between various religions” and forbids the use of religious affiliation as a basis for discrimination against any individual or group. The ordinance confines non-Muslim worship to church buildings approved by the state, imposes penalties for proselytizing, and treats these as criminal rather than civil offenses. This law was passed without prior consultation with affected religious groups and, as a presidential decree, was subject to no debate or meaningful vote in Parliament. [my emphasis]
The Government recognizes the Islamic holy days of Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Fitr, Awal Moharem, Ashura, and the birth of the Prophet Muhammad as national holidays.
No Saint Patrick’s Day or Christmas on that list. And in Algeria, the Easter Bunny was decapitated and eaten a long, long time ago.
Now the state apparatus is beginning to step up its opposition to non-Muslim practices. The Independent Catholic News, a volunteer journalism group headquartered in the UK, has news of the first known case of dhimmitude enforcement in Algeria since the law in 2006 was passed:
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A Catholic priest in Algeria has been sentenced to a year in prison for praying with Christians in Cameroon.
Middle East Concern reports that Father Pierre Wallez is the first victim of legislation approved in March 2006, prohibiting anyone from leading a religious ceremony anywhere without permission from the government in Algeria.
It appears that the only thing the priest did was to visit the Cameroon slum after Christmas. When they asked for a prayer, he obliged. This is against the law that proscribes any non-Muslim religious practice to take place anywhere except in a state-approved church building. This prayer took place outdoors, in a slum that has no approved building:
Algerian Archbishop Henri Teissier told Vatican Radio: “the most surprising thing is that the conviction was issued simply because the priest visited a group of Christians in Cameroon. He had not celebrated Mass, but was only joining them in a prayer. It was December 29, a little after Christmas.”
A tribunal has now modified the sentence to parole. But Christians in Algeria are concerned that their religious freedom is under threat.
Freedom of worship is purportedly guaranteed by the constitution of Algeria, but in recent months Christians there have faced increasing harassment and a hostile campaign in the media. In the same trial that sentenced Fr Wallez, a Muslim doctor was sentenced to two years imprisonment for using medications supplied by the Catholic Church’s Caritas charity.
On 12 February three [Christian] believers accused of insulting Islam were due to appear in court for sentencing. The case has been postponed to a later date, but delays often happen in such cases. The group been told they will be sentenced to three years in prison and fined 5,000 Euros.
Recently the government cancelled residency permits for Latin American Catholic priests working with Portuguese speaking African Christians in Algeria as migrant workers. Further requests made by the Catholic Church for visas for priests and other staff to visit Algeria are being systematically refused.
Middle East Concern says that Algerian Christians have requested readers’ prayers.
Hat tip: Insubria