State-Sponsored Church Closures and Religious Discrimination in Algeria
By guest contributor James Knight
In the contemporary age of religious and ideological radicalism, the church has faced growing challenges to its growth in historically non-Christian regions, particularly in the Muslim world. The Church has faced especially intense pressure from the government of Algeria to cease its activities.
Algeria has not had any significant native Christian communities since before the Muslim conquest. Arriving in great numbers towards the conclusion of the seventh century, Islam found a population ripe for conversion and an indigenous culture not entirely closed to external development. The Berber populations and other related ethnicities, largely nomadic themselves, easily related to the founding principles of the Islamic faith and joined the nascent religion in droves. Christian, Jewish, and a few other religious communities would remain generally obstinate in the face of conversion for the following few centuries, although their presence would gradually erode through the institution of the Jizya and through social discrimination.
For the several centuries following the original Islamic conquest of the Maghreb, Algeria was controlled by intermittent and disparate states, some of which were tribal and some of which were sedentary. For a time, this diverse, shattered region was gradually being reclaimed from the Muslim world by the Iberian nation-states, particularly the Castilians seeking to continue the Reconquista across the Straits of Gibraltar and into Islamic North Africa, and from the East by the Hafsid Dynasty and the Pirate-King Barbarossa. The Hafsids were originally an Islamic Berber kingdom based in Northeastern Algeria and Tunisia who sought to oppose the Iberian crusades along the Moroccan and Algerian coastlines by themselves conquering what they could in North Africa and practicing state-sponsored piracy along the coast of the Maghreb. Eventually, as their opposition to the Iberians looked to be approaching disaster, as Spanish forces continued to push towards Tunisia itself, Barbarossa and the leadership of the Hafsid Kingdom requested assistance from the growing Ottoman Empire in exchange for their sovereignty.
Following successful defeats of the Iberian military forces in the Maghreb, the Ottomans and their North African client states maintained control with varying degrees of local autonomy for the next three centuries. During this time, extremely few Christians lived in the area, as they had largely been absorbed or expelled by the authority of the Sultan in Constantinople or local puppet governments. Churches were correspondingly extremely uncommon during this period, as elsewhere in the Empire. However, in 1830, the military-controlled Republic of Algeria, still an Ottoman protectorate, fell to an invasion by the French under King Charles X after the Ottoman puppet leadership in Algeria demanded payment for food and supply import debts accrued by France during the Napoleonic Wars. While the aging Ottoman Empire attempted to halt the French encroachment on their semi-autonomous holdings, the French prevailed in most encounters and prevented serious interdiction by Turkish forces. This string of martial victories ended Islamic rule over the region which had lasted for over a millennium and established the French as the new colonial masters of the Maghreb for the next 132 years.
In the wake of the French invasion, the area was reconstituted as a royal protectorate of the post-Napoleonic French Empire. Even after the attempted secularization present in the revolutionary period, the French people were still largely Catholic. Under Charles X, Catholicism was reintroduced to the North Africans for the first time since the Islamic conquest, and was employed as a tool to assimilate the frustrated and rebellious Algerians. The Catholic Church accordingly established the Archdiocese of Algeria, with its constituent Dioceses of Constantine and Oran along the coastal provinces, as well as the Papal Diocese of Laghouat covering the Saharan Interior. Few Protestants took advantage of this newly-opening front, as no specific recounting of Protestant activities in the area are known to public record.
The Westerners of Algeria, or at least the non-native, non-Muslim population, have historically been referred to as the “pied-noir,” meaning Black Feet, a term whose etymological origins are disputed, but generally thought to be related to the workers of the coal rooms aboard French steamships. Most pied-noir were Catholic and predominantly white, although Algerian Jews were also recipients of the same label, thanks to the 1870 Crémieux Decree granting them full French citizenship.
When Algeria gained its independence in 1962, finally concluding the Algerian War for Independence, the pied-noir, numbering somewhere over one million, became immediate targets for discrimination. Several hundreds of thousands of the pied-noir left Algeria for mainland France and adopted it as their new homeland while only a few tens of thousands remained behind in the North African state. Unfortunately for the pied-noir emigrants, the French were not particularly welcoming of so many flooding into the home country from their former colony, subjecting them to further social discrimination across the France and leaving them alienated from both their ancestral and adopted homelands.
With the French Catholic demographic mostly removed from the popular scene in Algeria, the government was free to institute policies to promote traditional Islam and repress remaining non-adherents to Islamic faith and social practices. For the decades following the achievement of national liberty, religious policies were erected to make proselytization on the part of Christians or other groups markedly difficult to undertake in any setting. In similar fashion, during the 1970’s, as in much of the Muslim World, Islam experienced a remarkable reawakening in Algeria, which helped to set the path for the upcoming Algerian Civil War.
The Algerian Civil War, lasting from December 26, 1991 to February 8, 2002, had itself little specific effect on Christian or otherwise non-Islamic minorities but it signaled growing Islamic extremism in the Middle East and North Africa. The conflict started slowly toward the end of 1991, with the forced repression of a popular political party known as the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), following a military coup set against reform-minded politicians. Open conflict broke out in early 1992 between military-republican governmental forces and multiple militant groups, the most active of which was the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which had received a large number of their constituent members from the late FIS. The fighting was extremely brutal as there were massive counts of civilian casualties, earning the conflict the title “Dirty War,” and eventually serving to rob the guerrillas of the GIA and other groups of their widespread popular support. The war would eventually conclude in a victory for the governmental forces, although the rebel and dissident groups have lingered in rural areas and the Saharan Provinces to the present day. The GIA has since formed close ties with ISIS and Al-Qaeda since its withdrawal from public attention and continues to sporadically launch terrorist activities where opportunities present themselves. To commemorate their new joint effort with Al-Qaida and other groups, the GIA morphed into the contemporary Al-Qaida subdivision Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. The extremely destructive Civil War has however set the stage for Christian ministry.
While the government was generally able to quash the extremists in the Civil War, the same Islamic fundamentalism which was fostered in the minds of the youth from that era began to take root in the government after the conflict had concluded. Christianity, particularly of various Protestant varieties, has been growing slowly amidst the downtrodden post-civil war population. Numerous small churches and worship gatherings have grown out of the war-torn civilization as a result of Western missionary activities and indigenous Christian outreach programs. Exact numbers of the Christian faithful in Algeria are not known, nor can it be known with certainty, as numerous Christians do what they are able to make their distinct faith less obvious to avoid persecution; Christians likely comprise approximately 20,000 – 200,000, at most a mere 0.5% of the approximate Algerian population of 42 million.
In light of the recently-growing numbers of Christian converts, the government has begun a systematic repression program centered on halting Christian growth by forcibly closing churches. The means by which this is undertaken is built on a piece of legislation from 2006, known commonly as Ordinance 03/06, which requires all places of worship to be recognized and licensed according to the government’s standards for zoning, health and safety, and reason for being. The specific governmental entity responsible for managing these licenses and working with local non-Muslim religious leaders is the National Commission for Non-Muslim Religious Groups (NCNMRG). However, as the NCNMRG has so far denied all requests and applications for certification by individual churches, the national government has been granted a free hand to forcibly close down any churches it sees fit. Since 2016, this method of closing Christian centers of worship has become rampant, with some of the largest churches in the nation being forced to close their halls to the faithful. In just the past few weeks, at least eight churches have been barred from operation by the state through this law.
Other examples of discrimination against non-Muslims may also be found in the nation’s legislation. In the Algerian Family Code, a document steeped in Islamic law and tradition illustrates the necessities of each member in an Islamic family unit and how they relate. This document also dictates how marriages and courtship must be conducted, with particular attention paid to the religious elements. For example, Muslim men may marry any woman they desire, be they Muslim, Christian, or Jewish, but Muslim women may only marry Muslim men, or otherwise have a non-Muslim man they desire to marry convert to Islam themselves. Algerian blasphemy laws, similar to most other Islamic republican blasphemy laws, restrict freedom of speech and opportunities to proselytize on the part of Christians to Muslims, although the same restrictions do not apply to Muslims.
To rectify the situation’s difficulties, the Algerian government must hold true to the policies of anti-discrimination and religious freedom to which they proclaim to live by, as stated in Articles 29 and 36 of the Algerian Constitution respectively, by recanting the policies pertaining to restricting missionary activities and interfaith dialogues, regulation of marriage and family standards, and granting the ability to forcefully close churches and other non-Islamic places of worship. Algeria must also repeal their blasphemy laws so that unlawful detentions and penal actions may not be enforced on charges of questionable or dubious quality. Finally, Algeria must repeal Ordinance 03/06 to allow for the peaceful, unhindered continuation of Christian living and worship wherever and whenever they please.
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