Algeria Loosens COVID Restrictions but Continues to Restrict Religious Freedom

08/13/2020 Algeria (International Christian Concern) – Earlier this week, Algerians celebrated as the government eased COVID-19 regulations in another 29 provinces. The order allows travel and shortens curfews, bringing these provinces in line with the rest of the country, which relaxed restrictions in July.

Restaurants, cafes, and hotels will be allowed to reopen later this week as the Algerian government makes a bid to restore a tourist industry hit hard by the pandemic. Many private businesses face the possibility of bankruptcy, while state-owned enterprises face collective losses of over $1 billion, according to Finance Minister Aymen Benabderrahmane. The IMF predicts that the Algerian economy will shrink by over 5% this year.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who took office in December on promises of social reform and economic rejuvenation, has his work cut out for him if he is to make good on his campaign promises. With some 90% of government spending dependent on the export of oil—a commodity which has fallen over 30% since the beginning of 2020—Mr. Tebboune may find enacting social reform easier than restoring the economy, no small statement given that Algeria is just one year out from the 20-year reign of Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Of first importance in the attempt to enact social reform in Algeria is the restoration of freedom of thought and conscience. Article 42 of Algeria’s constitution theoretically guarantees freedom of thought and conscience to all Algerians, but in practice these rights are severely restricted.

On August 10, just one day after announcing that it would ease lockdown restrictions, Algeria sentenced a prominent Algerian journalist to three years in prison for the crime of reporting on anti-government protests. His sentencing drew sharp criticism from the international community, but these kinds of actions by the Tebboune administration come as no surprise to those acquainted with his brief but harsh history of quashing political and social dissent.

Just last month, Tebboune’s administration collected the religious affiliations of teachers in Tizi Ouzou Province, an area located just to the east of Algiers on the north coast of the country. The move has been seen as an attempt to intimidate Tizi Ouzou’s Christian and atheist teachers as the list of religious affiliations was subsequently forwarded to the national Department of Intelligence and Security.

Religious minorities in Algeria had hoped that Mr. Tebboune’s administration would reverse the history of persecution they experienced under both Mr. Bouteflika and the transitional military government. So far that hope has not been realized. 17 Christian churches were forcibly closed in 2019, sometimes violently by the military. Since then, only four have been reopened and none under the direction of the self-styled reformer.

When this week’s easing of COVID-19 restrictions is fully implemented on Saturday, worshipers in Algeria’s larger mosques will be allowed to return to places of worship that stood empty for nearly five months as the pandemic raged through the country. However, members of Algeria’s two largest churches—both forcibly closed last fall—aren’t so lucky. For them, the wait for justice and freedom of conscience continues.

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