Christians Face Ongoing Battle to Legalize Churches in Algeria
By Aidan Clay
08/1/2012 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) — Christians approaching a Protestant worship service near Freha, Algeria last week were told to return home by an armed mob of disgruntled neighbors. The mob had assembled outside the service and demanded the church’s immediate closure. The congregation, which meets in an unregistered house-church, is the latest group of Christians to be threatened and harassed because of their inability to quickly obtain legal status.
On July 20, a group armed with guns and knives prevented Christians affiliated with the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) from entering a house where services were being held in the village of El Majene, near Freha in northern Algeria. The mob accused the church’s 80 members of meeting “illegally” and launched a petition demanding the church’s immediate closure, the Algerian daily La Dépêche de Kabylie reported.
Despite permission given by the Ministry of Interior in July 2011 stating that all EPA churches are allowed to officially register their congregations, many EPA churches, including the church in El Majene, have not yet been approved. Until the registration is processed, Protestant churches are considered illegal and often face harassment by neighbors and local authorities.
“It’s possible that more churches will be closed because the registration process takes so long,” an EPA spokesman told International Christian Concern (ICC). “Without legal status, neighbors will continue to pressure the church and force Christians to leave. But, if churches have government authorization, then there will not be as many problems.”
Similar demands to close Christian worship services have threatened 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,” said a Protestant church leader in Tizi Ouzou. “Our church also received this order in 2008, but because we resisted, the church continues to this day.”
Meanwhile, a controversial law introduced in 2006 that regulates non-Muslim worship continues to hinder the freedoms of religious minorities. Ordinance 06-03 prohibits Christians from holding services without government authorization and outlaws religious practices that conflict with the government’s interpretation of Islamic law.
Algerian Christians are waiting to see whether or not the government is sincere about reforming policies that have previously violated the rights of religious minorities. While government approval to register EPA churches is a positive step forward, real change may not occur until Ordinance 06-03 is overturned.
“We are continuing efforts to repeal, or at least revise, the 2006 law,” Mustapha Krim, the President of the EPA, told ICC. “We expect the new legislation granted to the EPA to be favorable to our cause.”
According to Krim, twenty-seven EPA churches and about a dozen independent churches are allowed to apply for registration, but many have not yet been approved. The registration process for each Protestant church often takes years. Once approved, the process may see further delays as congregations are required to renew their legal status with the Ministry of Interior after four years.
Governmental pressure on churches has forced Algeria’s Christians into a corner. Churches must either adhere to the law by closing their doors until they are officially registered and deemed legal by the government, or disobey the law by continuing to worship without authorization. Most Christians have opted for the latter, believing they have no other alternative but to exercise their right to worship freely in accordance to their convictions.
“Pastors and church officials… opted for resistance by continuing to worship instead of obeying the order to close their doors,” said an EPA church member in Béjaia following an order by the governor and police commissioner to close seven Protestant churches in the province in May 2011. “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 meetings in the open air, which is already being done in some communities. But, we believe the situation will improve.”
Although laws that discriminate against religious minorities are found in Algeria’s legal codes, the country is also 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.”