Algeria shuts 13 Protestant churches

Algiers, Algeria - Algeria has ordered the closure of 13 Protestant churches, the head of the denomination said Monday, amid anger over allegations that Evangelist Christians are trying to convert Muslims.

The churches have been told to close their doors until they are issued the permit which non-Muslim groups in theory must have if they want to pursue organised worship, Pastor Mustapha Krim said.

"Thirteen chapels, including 11 in Tizi Ouzou, one in Bejaia and one in Bouira have been closed on the orders of local officials," said Krim, who is the leader of the Protestant Church in Algeria.

"No reason has been given for this decision," he said, adding that he had made a formal request for explanation from the Algerian state's representative in the Tizi Ouzou region.

Algeria passed a law in February 2006 requiring non-Muslim congregations to seek a permit from their regional prefecture, but thus far the order has not been enforced and no Christian churches have been closed.

Now, however, a dispute has erupted when Islamic leaders accused Protestant Evangelists of attempting to convert members of Algeria's Muslim majority to Christianity.

Krim's predecessor as leader of Algeria's Protestants, the 74-year-old American pastor Hugh Johnson, is locked in a legal struggle to stay in the country after the state refused to renew his residence permit.

The Protestant Church claims to have 50,000 followers, 10,000 of them active churchgoers, spread across 33 congregations.

The ministry of religious affairs, however, says there are only 11,000 Christians in Algeria all told - most of them Catholic - among an overwhelmingly Muslim population of 33 million.