A court in Tiaret, 150 miles southwest of Algiers, delivered the written verdict yesterday after convicting the Christian on April 2, said Mustapha Krim, president of the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA). Prosecution of “proselytism” violates Article 18 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms the inherent right to publicly manifest one’s faith.
The Christian, who requested anonymity, plans to appeal the two-year suspended sentence and a 100,000 (US$1,540) dinar fine, Krim said. Because it is suspended, the man will not have to serve his jail term unless he commits a repeat offense.
According to Krim, authorities brought charges against the man after he reluctantly gave a Bible to an undercover police officer who posed as someone interested in Christianity and insisted that he needed one.
Police have detained several other Christians in past weeks, apparently part of an effort to implement stringent regulations put in place two years ago to govern non-Muslim places of worship.
In addition to restricting church buildings and worship locations, the 2006 religion law also bans attempts to “shake the faith of a Muslim.”
“If you take this law to the extreme, it means that carrying more than one Bible is illegal,” said one long-time resident of Algeria who requested anonymity.
On March 29 police detained a Christian woman for 24 hours when they discovered she was carrying six books about Christianity during a routine check on the outskirts of Tiaret. Christian sources reported that she is scheduled to appear before a judge on May 7.
Two Christian men traveling by public bus from Tizi Ouzou to Bjaia on the evening of March 21 also were detained by police after they were found with 11 Bibles. The men were held for 24 hours and then released.
Acclerated Church Closures
Authorities in Algeria have accelerated church closures, with half of the country’s Protestant congregations now ordered to cease all activity, Christian support organization Open Doors reported today.
The Holland-based organization reported that 26 congregations have now been give orders to close. At least 16 belong to the EPA, which counts 32 members, while another 10 are from approximately 20 small independent house groups that exist around the country.
During an interview on national television on March 30, Religious Affairs Minister Bu’Abdallah Ghoulamullah claimed to be closing churches for not functioning “according to the law.” He said that the churches would be allowed to reopen after conforming to government regulations.
But several congregations report that they have decided to reopen their doors after multiple attempts to meet official regulations have failed to produce government approval.
“We have done everything, and we are conformed to what the religious minister said, and the provincial governor,” said one member of the Full Gospel church in south Tizi-Ouzou. “The result is nothing for the moment.”
The congregation has continued meetings despite an order to close their doors last month, prompting a visit from local police during their weekly meeting last Friday (April 4).
Seven policemen and a policewoman approached the church pastor at the end of the service at 1 p.m. to deliver written notice for the Christians to cease all activity. The officers apologized for interrupting the individual prayer that the pastor and other elders were carrying out for members of the 400 Christians in attendance but re-ordered the church to close down.
The head pastor immediately went to the local police station and explained why the congregation had decided to continue meeting. Police noted the explanation and again told the pastor to cease all activity before letting him go.
Other churches have faced similar difficulties in obtaining government approval for their activities.
“There was another church who went 11 times to the provincial governor and each time he sent them to get this paper or that paper, and so on,” a member of the Full Gospel church said.
In an April 1 statement, Krim responded to accusations by Algeria’s religious affairs minister that their congregations were not real churches, “only houses and garages disguised as churches and not in accordance with the law.”
“The honorable minister had forgotten to mention that our historic places of worship have been confiscated in order to transform them into mosques, into pharmacies, into museums and even into trade union headquarters,” Krim wrote.
Krim called on authorities to return church properties confiscated by the government after large numbers of Christians left the country when it gained independence in 1962.
Krim’s predecessor, former EPA president and 74-year-old U.S. citizen Hugh Johnson, left Algeria on March 26 after he was ordered to leave the previous month. His appeal remains before an Algerian court.