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Algeria : Evangelist Says Police, Others Targeting Him

Journalist denies making death threats; court postpones trial.

ICC Note

“I told him, ‘If I capture you, I will kill you,’”

06/19/2008 Algeria (Compass Direct News) – A court yesterday postponed until next Wednesday (June 25) a hearing in west Algeria for a church leader on trial for evangelism.

Already convicted of evangelism and blasphemy in two separate cases this year, Rachid Muhammad Essaghir, 37, believes he is being targeted for his work with Christians in Tiaret.

The convert to Christianity, who regularly posts his telephone number on evangelistic Christian satellite TV programs, said that he has received death threats from Algerian journalist Haitham Rabani in recent months. A correspondent tracking Christianity in Algeria , Rabani told Compass that he did not threaten Essaghir but did send him text messages.

At the same time, Rabani admitted threatening the host of an Al-Hayat Christian satellite talk show who is also named Rachid.

“I told him, ‘If I capture you, I will kill you,’” Rabani told Compass, saying that he had not actually meant to carry out the threat.

“We speak like that in our country, a father says it to his son,” Rabani said. “But if I really meant it, I would have taken a plane to Cyprus and killed him.”

The journalist said that the talk show host made inflammatory remarks about Islam and Algeria that provoked him to make the threats.

“He said that the Quran is not real and the Bible is real, it’s quite normal,” Rabani said. “But during the talk, he accused our community of being a France community, less Islamic than before.”

Rabani said he text-messaged Essaghir a number of times to ask him to tell the talk show host to remove a recording of the conversation from the Internet.

Arrested over Box of Books

A convert to Christianity who moved to Tiaret (150 miles southwest of Algiers ) four years ago, Essaghir said that his trouble with the government began following a June 2007 incident that prompted his current trial.

At that time police found a box of Christian books in Essaghir’s possession while he was driving with a friend in the vicinity of Tissemsilt, east of Tiaret.

At a court hearing last September, a state prosecutor charged the men with “distributing documents to shake the faith of Muslims.” The case was one of the first instances that a February 2006 law outlawing any form of evangelizing Muslims had been implemented. Under Ordinance 06-03, attempts to convert Muslims to another religion can be punished with up to five years imprisonment and a 1 million-dinar (US$16,407) fine.

The Tissemsilt court convicted the men in their absence on November 28, 2007. It was not until Essaghir’s companion, identified only as Djallal, was arrested on May 22 that the men discovered they had been given two-year sentences and 5,000-euro fines.

Djallal was released on May 25, and the two Christians are now being tried again in Tissemsilt, based on the fact that they were not at the November ruling, defense lawyer Khelloudja Khalfoun said. Yesterday’s hearing was postponed until June 25 because Khalfoun was unable to attend.

Since his arrest in possession of Christian literature, the church elder said that police have continued to target him.

“I have the feeling they are following me all the time,” Essaghir told Compass.

On May 9 the church leader and five other men were arrested by police while leaving a prayer meeting at Essaghir’s home. Initially charged with “distributing documents to shake the faith of Muslims,” four of the six men were convicted. Essaghir received a six- month suspended sentence and a 200,000-dinar (US$3,282) fine.

When police arrested a Christian from Tiaret in a separate incident on April 25, they refused to allow the convert to make a phone call, saying that they knew he would contact Essaghir.

In April, officials closed Essaghir’s Internet café on the basis that he lacked written permission from local police. Friends of the Christian said that police were legally justified in closing the café, but that it was common for such cafés, numerous in Algerian cities, to function without police permission.

“Because he is a Christian and well known, there is no way he can stay open,” said one of Essaghir’s friends.

Another friend commented that Essaghir’s situation also placed pressure on his wife and 1-year-old daughter.

“Authorities have decided to make sure he stops talking about his faith,” the friend said. “That has not happened, and according to Essaghir it will never happen, even if he has to go to prison.”

Religious Freedom Awash

The February 2006 law appears to contradict Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Algeria is a signatory, asserting that religious freedom includes the right to manifest one’s religion or belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching.

Algerian media have produced a wave of articles this year decrying “evangelization campaigns” designed to convert Muslims to Christianity and to undermine Algeria ’s political unity.

Religious Affairs Minister Bu’Abdallah Ghoulamullah said Monday (June 16) that evangelization is the new terrorism, according to Arabic daily Echorouk.

“Their objective is to trigger opposition and tension in families,” Ghoulamullah said, asserting that such groups had no intention of winning converts to Christianity.

Echoing Ghoulamullah’s statement, Rabani said that Essaghir and other members of what he termed “American Anglican” groups were using religion for political ends.

“They are going to Kabylie [region] and saying to many Kabyls that they are of Jewish origin, that they have to support Israel ,” Rabani told Compass, referring to an ethnic minority in eastern Algeria .

Their language and culture distinct from that of Algeria ’s Arab majority, eastern Algeria ’s Kabyl people have long sought greater autonomy under Algerian law.

Evangelical Protestants have reported a growing number of conversions from Islam to Christianity in Kabyl in recent years. The region is now home to dozens of churches and congregations, some of them registered with the government.

Observers familiar with the political situation told Compass that antagonistic media accounts may be a government ploy to distract people from other problems, such as a national housing shortage and inflation of staple goods prices.

The media campaign against Christians has been accompanied by a series of church closure orders and court cases sentencing Christians on religious charges.