Algeria: Officials Order Closure Of 19 Protestant Congregations

Istanbul, Turkey - Police issued written orders for three Algerian churches to cease activity this week, bringing to 19 the number of congregations told to shut down since November, an Algerian Protestant leader said.

In addition to the three churches, registered under the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA), two independent congregations were verbally ordered to close their doors, EPA President Mustapha Krim said.

The church closures come amid a flurry of antagonistic media articles warning of campaigns by Protestants to “Christianize” Algeria.

“Muslims do not accept seeing their holy symbols attacked,” Religious Affairs Minister Bu’Abdallah Ghoulamullah said this week in reference to a “Christianization campaign” targeting the country.

Ghoulamullah called on Christian groups in Algeria to re-register according to Algeria’s associations’ law, the March 25 article in Arabic daily El Khabar reported.

But some critics have responded that Algeria’s Christians, not its Muslim majority, are the ones being attacked.

“The repression of evangelist proselytism has turned into the harassment of Christians,” columnist Mustapha Hammouche wrote in Liberte on Tuesday (March 25).

Indeed, Algerian Christians have claimed that the government has blocked them from carrying out the required re-registration of their churches.

“The administration offices in Tizi-Ouzou did not want to or could not say which measures to take in order to obtain the famous ‘certificate of conformity,’” church leaders wrote on March 26. They said the certificate was required to show that they were in line with a new March 2006 law governing non-Muslim places of worship.

“[The] result: the churches are closed, services forbidden, and nothing can change the situation!” reported the Algerian Christian website on March 26.

In addition to restrictions on church building and worship locations, the 2006 religion law also bans evangelistic material and attempts to convert Muslims to other religions. As most Algerian Christians are converts from Islam, the law could be interpreted to make nearly all Christian churches in the country illegal.

Police detained two Algerian Christians traveling by public bus from Tizi Ouzou to Bejaia the evening of March 21 for carrying 11 Bibles.

Authorities held the two men for “proselytism” after finding the Bibles while searching their bags at a routine check-point in Beni Ksila, website reported. One Christian was carrying a personal Bible, while the other, a church council member in Bejaia, was carrying 10 Bibles.

Both men, who requested anonymity for security reasons, were released the following evening after spending a night and a day in police custody.

“It would be more logical that roadblocks catch terrorists,” columnist Chawki Amari wrote in El Watan on March 24. “[If] two Algerians were arrested at a roadblock in England and placed in custody because they carry a dozen specimen of the Quran, one could imagine the consequences: Demonstrations from Nouakchott as far as Islamabad, the burning of flags, unanimous condemnation, the anger of [Religious Affairs Minister] Ghoulamullah […]”

Equating Evangelism with ‘Terrorism’

Ironic particularly in light of Amari’s comment, Algerian authorities have begun comparing evangelization with terrorism in recent months.

“I equate evangelism with terrorism,” Religious Affairs Minister Ghoulamullah said in an article in L’Expression on February 12.

“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,” news service France24 reported Ghoulamullah as saying. “They come here to create minorities, which would give foreign countries a pretext to interfere in our internal affairs.”

An official report on Protestant activities in Algeria submitted to the Home Affairs Ministry warned of a “fierce attack” targeting the religion and unity of the country, according to local media.

The report recommended supporting Quran schools and mosques to counter Christian evangelization, a March 24 article in El Khabar reported.

According to the report, former EPA president and U.S. citizen Hugh Johnson, 74, was the leader of evangelization in Algeria. Johnson, a 45-year resident, left the country Wednesday (March 26) after having temporarily postponed a February 25 deportation order, reported.

“We are sorry that Algeria could not find another solution to this matter and is depriving itself of citizens like Hugh Johnson,” an article on the Algerian Christian website said.

Ranging in size from several dozen to more than 1,000 members, 32 congregations in Algeria belong to the EPA, while another 20 small fellowships exist independently.

Krim of the EPA said that five independent congregations and 14 EPA fellowships have been ordered to shut down.

He said that 11 of these received written orders from the police, two were told to close on a judge’s order, and six were given verbal warning by police and gendarmerie.

Congregations in Ait Amar, Ait Djemaa, Bachloul, Boughni, Ouargla, Tiaret and Tizi Ouzou are among those told to cease activity, according to Christian advocacy group Middle East Concern.

Despite increased church closures in recent weeks, Krim said that he had felt the support of prayers from Christians around the world.

“I feel the effectiveness of prayers for me from our greater family everywhere,” the pastor said.