By Linda Burkle, PhD
Last year, major political changes occurred in Algeria when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned after twenty years in power. Shortly after, in December 2019, Abdelmadjid Tebboune was elected as the new president. Since taking office, he has faced ongoing pressure to address corruption and abuse of freedoms, resulting in a new constitution being drafted. On November 13, 2020, Algeria finally approved a Constitutional referendum, which may impact Christian churches. Some believe that the referendum was an attempt to appease sustained domestic protests and international pressure regarding Algeria’s suppression of free speech. The fact that voter turnout was low may reflect the lack of confidence Algerians have that the new Constitution will bring about needed change. 
Article 51 of the new Constitution adds the phrase: “The state ensures the protection of places of worship from any political or ideological influence” but omits “freedom of conscious” which was included in the former Constitution Article 42.  Many Christians worry that the changes may further perpetuate government suppression of religious observance. Thus far, churches remain closed while mosques have been allowed to reopen following the loosening of COVID restrictions. 
In recent years there has been a growing trend of limiting religious freedom of Christians in Algeria. According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, the most recent crackdown began in November of 2017 and continued to escalate in 2019, resulting in the systematic closures of at least twelve churches in 2019 alone. In 2020, more churches were closed and most remain closed, including the three largest congregations shuttered in October 2019. “Officials have made arbitrary demands that churches cease all religious activities, accusing them of violating safety regulations, operating illegally, or evangelizing, or giving them other justifications for sealing off their places of worship.”  In some instances, pastors and congregants were beaten, forcibly removed, and detained during protests over church closures. These closures were particularly aggressive and met with international rebuke. As a result, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that Algeria be placed on the State Department’s Special Watch List. If the State Department follows suit, there could be significant implications on foreign aid funding and diplomatic relations. 
In addition, the 2020 Open Doors Watch List ranked Algeria the 17th worst country in persecution on all categories analyzed, up from a ranking of 24th in 2019. These categories include persecution as a result of government action, as well as persecution from non-governmental citizens, especially persecution that targets former Muslims who became Christians.  Other human rights monitoring groups shared the condemnation of the church closures. Human Rights Watch issued a statement: “The government should immediately re-open the churches and publicly commit to protecting freedom for all religious communities in Algeria”.
Algeria is 99 percent Sunni Muslim, while Christians and other religious minorities make up the remaining 1 percent. Christians are represented in a variety of denominations, including Catholics, Methodist, Anglican, Seven-Day Adventists Reformed Church, Evangelical, Lutheran and Coptic Christians. Following the country’s independence from France in 1962 and mass departure of foreign Christians amid severe persecution, only a few Christians remained. Despite severe restrictions and persecution, the Church has continued to grow organically from a few families to between 130,000 to 200,000 believers. 
Through a series of laws, the government has created conditions whereby it is virtually impossible for churches to legally operate. Blasphemy laws, such as Article 144 Section 2 of the Criminal Code and Article 77 of the Information Code of 1990, prohibit Christians from sharing their faith or “[shaking] the faith” of a Muslim or to use “means of seduction” to convert a Muslim to another religion.  Violations are arbitrary and punishable with imprisonment and fines. Article 26 of the Criminal Code prohibits publications of content that “contrary to Islamic morals, national values, [or] human rights, or which defends racism, fanaticism, or treason.”  With the additional passage of Ordinance 06/03 in 2006, and Law of Associations in 2012, churches and other religious minorities are required to register and receive permission to operate from the National Commission for Non-Muslim Religious Groups. However, this commission is virtually nonexistent, rarely meets and has thus far not granted permits to any churches. Although the Evangelical Protestant Association, one of the country’s largest Christian groups, was officially recognized by the government in 1972, changes in the laws now require all churches to register, even if they previously were approved. Even with a new Constitution, if these laws remain in force, nothing will change and churches will continue to operate without official permission and face closures.
In addition to church closures, Christians are targeted for meeting together at other venues. In June, a court in the northwestern port city of Mostaganem sentenced a Christian man to a suspended prison term and a fine of 100,000 dinars (around US$840) for holding a Christian prayer meeting at his house. In another case, Amar Ait-Ouali was fined 50,000 dinars (around US$420) for holding a church meeting on his land in a village near Akbou, a town in the Kabylia region east of Algiers, following the forcible closure of the village’s church in October 2018.” 
Is there still reason to hope for the Church in Algeria? Ali Khidri, the Executive Secretary of the Bible Society in Algeria, notes that there is a spiritual hunger, and many people are coming to the Lord through the radio program on SAT-7 My Church in Algeria. “All this is going in the right direction,” he said. “[as] the result of [campaigning by] the Church and Christians for many years now.” Despite a lack of confidence many hold regarding improvement under the new constitution, Khidri remains optimistic. The 2006 law, which is most egregiously used to persecute Christians, was a presidential decree. As such, it is more powerful than the constitution. Now, under a new president, Christians are hopeful and pray that the law will be repealed. 
Dr. Burkle retired from The Salvation Army in early 2019 where she oversaw an array of social services in a multi-state region. Along with the State Attorney General, Burkle Co-Chaired the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force. Dr. Burkle holds a doctoral degree in international relations. Dr. Burkle has worked with persecuted peoples in a number of countries, and her dissertation focused on religious persecution; specifically regarding Iran, Iraq, Sudan, China and Burma (Myanmar). Dr. Burkle resides in Omaha, Nebraska. She has three grown children and eight grandchildren.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.
- Cornerstone Forum|No.279|Evans|Algeria’s Opportunity for Freedom.docx
- Algerian Constitution 2020
- Population and number of Christian statistics: Johnson T M and Zurlo GA, eds. World Christian Database (Leiden/Boston: Brill, accessed April 2019)
- Cornerstone Forum|No.279|Evans|Algeria’s Opportunity for Freedom.docx