Muslim and Christian Advocates Demand Religious Freedom for all Algerians
By Aidan Clay
Washington, D.C. Feb. 13 (International Christian Concern) – The final verdict of an Algerian sentenced to one year in prison for allegedly propagating the Christian faith is scheduled to be announced today during his appeal hearing in Tindouf. A second Christian, being tried for the same offense in Oran, is expected to learn whether his five-year prison sentence will stand in the coming weeks. The cases’ verdicts will reveal the Algerian government’s commitment, or lack thereof, to religious freedom, rights advocates say.
On July 4, 2012, Mohamed Ibaouene, a Christian convert from Islam, was sentenced in absentia by a court in Tigzirt to one year in prison and fined 50,000 dinars (approximately 640 USD) for proselytizing. Abdelkrim Mansouri, Ibaouene’s former colleague, had filed a complaint with the National Gendarmerie in Tindouf in February 2012 saying that Ibaouene had pressured him to “abandon” Islam and convert to Christianity. Ibaouene denies the charges, claiming that it was in fact Mansouri who had pressured him to renounce Christianity.
“Is it true that you are a Christian?” Mansouri reportedly asked Ibaouene. “Yes, I am,” Ibaouene replied. Mansouri went on to demand that Ibaouene return to Islam, which he called “the religion of all Algerians,” by renouncing his Christian faith, Morning Star News reports.
It was not until December that Ibaouene learned of his July conviction that had been issued under Article 11 of Law 03/2006, which restricts the religious practices of non-Muslims. “Authorities did not serve the judgment to Ibaouene sooner presumably because he had left Tindouf after marrying in June and they were not aware of his whereabouts, and because of slow administrative processes,” reported Morning Star News.
“This story that binds my client was invented from scratch,” said Ibaouene’s lawyer Mohamed Benbelkacem following an appeal hearing on Jan. 23. “This trial does not even make sense... [The] law is itself ambiguous. Nothing is clear in its implementation.” The appeals judge is expected to reach a decision on Feb. 13.
Ibaouene is not the only Christian that may be imprisoned for proselytism in Algeria. Siaghi Krimo, arrested in April 2011 and detained for three days in Oran after giving a CD about Christianity to a neighbor, was given a five-year prison sentence in May 2011 under Article 144 bis 2 of Algeria's Penal Code, which criminalizes acts that “insult the Prophet and any of the messengers of God, or denigrate the creed and precepts of Islam.” Krimo was summoned to an appellate court in November 2012 following the trial’s nearly one-year postponement in order that new evidence could be presented. Krimo’s next hearing has been postponed to an unannounced date.
Christians and Muslims came to Krimo’s defense during protests outside the Ministry of Justice in Algiers prior to his case’s adjournment in December 2011. “So what if he is an Algerian Jew or Christian, he has the right to live like any other who is a Muslim,” Selma, a Muslim student in Algiers, told the independent newspaper El Watan. “A Christian completely has the right to offer someone a Bible, just as a Muslim has the right to offer a Quran. Previously, these types of cases were mostly held in Kabylie, now they are taking place in Oran. Where will it go from here?
To many Algerians, Krimo’s verdict was viewed not merely as an offense committed against a Christian, but as a direct violation of the human rights of all Algerians.“People decided to show solidarity with their fellow citizen who had chosen a religion that suited him,” Kaddour Chouicha, a representative of the National Coordination for Change and Democracy, told Radio France Internationale. “The Algerian constitution allows freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and freedom of thought. The judge exceeded his powers by ruling in accordance to his ideology over his regard for the law.”
While laws that discriminate against religious minorities are found in Algeria's legal codes, the country is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states in Article 18 that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion... [and] in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Christians like Krimo, however, are unlikely to succumb to government pressure—even if it means imprisonment—by surrendering their religious liberties. “Krimo’s family has decided to fight the battle without fear of intimidation by the court,” a spokesman of the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) told ICC. “They are not ashamed of their faith… Krimo said he is willing to go to jail if necessary. ‘I preached in obedience to the Lord, and I will preach again and again,’ he told me.”