In late May, the president of the Protestant Church Association in Algeria (EPA) received the following notice: “I, Mr. Ben Amar Salma, the High Commissioner of the police in Béjaia, have informed Mr. Mustapha Krim, the President of the EPA… to close down all worship places; the places which are used now and the places which are under construction… The authorities will make sure that the order will be obeyed, otherwise severe consequences and punishments will be applied.”
This notification demanded the permanent closure of the seven Protestant churches in the Béjaia province, located 200 kilometers east of the capital Algiers. The threat came as no surprise to the EPA. Since 2006, Protestants have lived at the mercy of a strict law known as Ordinance 06-03, which has prevented them from worshipping freely or legally. The ordinance regulates the worship of non-Muslims by requiring churches to obtain government permission to hold services. Despite repeated efforts by the EPA to obtain this permission, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Religious Affairs have failed to create a clear procedure to register churches and it often takes years before approving registrations.
“We were told we are not in compliance with the 2006 decree, but we have tried to comply,” EPA President Mustapha Krim told the Algerian daily La Dépêche de Kabylie. “We have spoken with the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Interior Ministry. We have gone round-and-round with them for years, but nothing gets done.”
Similar notifications, like the one received in Béjaia, have been issued to EPA churches before. “The same thing occurred in Tizi Ouzou when several churches were ordered to close under threats that legal action would be taken against the leaders,” a church leader in Tizi Ouzou told ICC. “Our church also received this order in 2008, but because we resisted, the church continues to this day.”
In a more recent incident, a church in the village of Makouda, near Tizi Ouzou, was given 48 hours to shut its doors on April 23. The pastor presented documents to the local police department that proved his affiliation with the EPA, but the police commissioner said the documents were not sufficient proof to operate the church. Still, the church continues to meet each week.
While EPA churches continue to hold services despite being warned otherwise, they do not take the threat on the Béjaia churches lightly. “According to this decree, if one does not obey the instructions, the authorities are threatening to do the enforcement,” said Krim. “Apparently they want us to disappear from the map.”
Nonetheless, when Sunday morning services rolled around on May 29, the notification was not enough to persuade churches in Béjaia to shut their doors. “Here we are Lord to praise Thy name!” sang a hundred worshippers before Pastor Nordin stepped to the pulpit to read Psalm 23, reminding the congregation of God’s faithfulness even in hardship. “We did not understand the decision of the [governor],” a church member told La Dépêche de Kabylie. “We worship out of conviction. We are not afraid, because we did nothing wrong. We were never forced to choose Jesus, but we did so voluntarily. Whatever the circumstances, we will continue to say: we are here to praise your name Lord.”
At the end of the day, authorities had not interfered and services proceeded as normal. Further indication that the situation was improving soon followed when Minister of Interior Dahou Ould Kablia stated at a June 2 press conference in Algiers that the Protestant Church of Béjaia will be “allowed to continue their activities until they receive the necessary authorization,” Algerian news agency Tout sur l’Algérie reported.
While Christians in Béjaia remain unsure about whether they will be allowed to freely worship in the future, one thing is certain – they will not close quietly. “Pastors and church officials… opted for resistance by continuing to worship instead of obeying the order to close their doors,” said a representative of the EPA. “They continued to meet and celebrate their religion despite the threats. If the authorities decide to close places of worship, Christians will gather in homes or cell group meeting in the open air, which is already being done in some communities. But, we believe the situation will improve.”
The inability to register church buildings has caused many Algerian Christian communities to worship underground, either in the homes of congregants or in the secluded countryside. One community living in a remote village nestled in the beautiful Kabylie mountainside gathered in a shabby garage, their third location that year, when ICC visited them in 2010. They were preparing to move again because the landlord received complaints from neighbors who insisted that Christian worship should not be overheard in a Muslim community. Before designating the garage as a house of worship, the congregants held gatherings near a river on the outskirts of town each week when the weather permitted. Please keep this congregation, the churches in Béjaia, and the EPA in your prayers.