Religious freedom advocates warn that church closures are ‘wrong direction’ for Algeria

Algeria church Santa Cruz Chapel on Murdjajou mount in Oran, Algeria. | Ali Mehaoudi/Shutterstock

The closure of several Christian churches in Algeria, as well as court convictions of Christians for undermining Muslim beliefs, are causes for concern, a United States religious freedom watchdog warns.

“Recent decisions by Algerian courts to sentence Christians accused of blasphemy and proselytizing to multi-year prison sentences and to seal Protestant churches that have been forcibly closed demonstrates the country is headed in the wrong direction,” Nadine Maenza, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said June 23.

In March, the Oran City Court of Justice upheld a five-year prison sentence against Hamid Soudad, a 42-year-old Christian father of four who allegedly insulted Islam’s prophet Mohammed by reposting a cartoon on his Facebook page.

On June 6 pastor and bookstore owner Rachid Mohamed Seighir was sentenced by a court in Oran for “printing, storing, or distributing materials that can ‘shake’ the faith of a Muslim.”

Just days before, an administrative court in Oran ordered authorities to physically seal three Protestant churches that the government forcibly closed in 2020, though the churches are appealing the decision.

The city of Oran is on northern Africa’s Mediterranean coast about 270 miles west of Algiers.

Frederick A. Davie, a commissioner on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, characterized the court decisions as “blatant attempts to deny Algerian Christians their right to freedom of religion and belief.”

“We encourage U.S. government officials to attend the appeals for these rulings to demonstrate our firm commitment to religious freedom for Christians and all religious minorities in Algeria,” he said.

The religious freedom commission has recommended the State Department put Algeria on its “special watch list” for “engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom.”

The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom was established by Congress as an independent, bipartisan entity to report on religious freedom abroad. It makes policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress.

The non-denominational Christian anti-persecution group Open Doors has also voiced concerns about developments in Algeria.

Over the last three years, Algerian authorities have systematically campaigned against the Protestant Church of Algeria, forcibly closing 13 churches and ordering others to halt all activities. Most Christians are converts from Islam and can face persecution from their immediate family, their extended family, or the wider community including local ethnic leaders. State officials can also pressure converts, including by imposing limits on expressing their views in public. Converts in rural Algeria face the most danger.

The situation in Algeria recently improved, according to Open Doors, with the country falling to the 24th rank on the group’s persecution index; the organization’s 2020 report said this is due in large part to a “substantial reduction in incidents of violence against Christians.”

Open Doors said this does not mean past persecution is over in Algeria.

The France-born Archbishop of Algiers, Paul Desfarges, spoke with CNA’s African partner ACI Africa in July 2020.

Christians had previously been rejected by their families because of their faith, he said. In his view, persecution is becoming rarer “because the new disciples live their faith discreetly and with respect for Islam. And a path of acceptance is gradually being made in Algeria.”

Desfarges is a member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. In 2018, as head of the Regional Episcopal Conference of North Africa, he encouraged the proposal that interreligious dialogue be used as a way of promoting equity in the Maghreb countries.

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“It becomes a cross when disciples, children of the country, are rejected because of their faith by those they love most,” the archbishop told ACI Africa, adding “This is why inter-religious dialogue begins first of all in prayer, thanksgiving, intercession. It also deepens in prayer, when it becomes combat: combat against lies, against hatred and imploring for forgiveness.”

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