RLPB 449. Algeria: churches closed as repression escalates
ALGERIA: CHURCHES CLOSED AS REPRESSION ESCALATES
— including update on prisoner Slimane Bouhafs
by Elizabeth Kendal
CFF Director of Advocacy
Algeria’s population is 97 percent Muslim; most are Arabs and Arabised Berbers. [Berbers, or Amazigh, are the indigenous peoples of the Maghreb. They comprise 23 percent of the population of Algeria.] The growth of Christianity amongst North Africa’s Berbers, especially in Algeria’s Kabyle region east of Algiers, is linked to the revival of Berber cultural identity that has been sweeping North Africa since the 1970s. Algeria held parliamentary elections in 1991. When Islamists won the first round of voting, the government cancelled the second round and declared a state of emergency. The result was a horrendous civil war which pitted Islamist against government forces and claimed the lives of some 200,000 Algerians. Whilst the war officially ended in 2002, hardline jihadists aligned with al-Qaeda spread into the Sahel and switched their focus from war/jihad to terrorism and kidnapping for ransom.
In February 2006 the Algerian government passed a Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation. As part of the deal, some 10,000 Islamic militants were granted amnesty and released from prison. A few weeks later, in March 2006, the Algerian government enacted Presidential Order 06-03 which mandates fines and prison terms for anyone who ‘incites, constrains or uses seductive means seeking to convert a Muslim to another religion … or who produces, stores or distributes printed documents or audio-visual formats or any other format or means which seeks to shake the faith of a Muslim’. Then, in June 2007, the government amended the religion law to create the ‘National Commission for Non-Muslim Faiths’ and massively increase the regulation of Christian churches, especially those deemed ‘extremist’ (i.e., evangelical). Now Christian activities may only take place within government-approved associations and structures.
The government has allowed itself to be trapped essentially in an eternal balancing act. To ensure security and stability it must repress domestic fundamentalist and militant Islam. To compensate and appease the Islamists it must repress Christianity, by which means it also bolsters its Islamic credentials. Further compensation and appeasement is achieved by providing sanctuary to jihadists (such as al-Qaeda’s JNIM) along the southern border and by refusing to support regional anti-terror efforts. This is nothing but pragmatic cowardice.
Persecution has been escalating since late 2017. On 8 March one pastor received a fine and a three-month suspended prison sentence for ‘proselytising’ in violation of Order 06-03. The same day, two brothers were handed large fines and suspended sentences for being found (in 2015) in possession of some 50 Bibles. Accused of ‘proselytising’, the brothers insist the Bibles were purchased for church use only. Most critically, twenty-five of the forty-five churches belonging to the Protestant Church of Algeria (l’Église Protestante d’Algerie, or EPA) have received notices to comply with new standards or face closure. Indeed, four churches have been closed in the last four months — three EPA churches in the coastal city of Oran (400km west of Algiers) and an independent village church in Azagher which is near Akbou in Kabyle region. In each case the authorities cited lack of state approval and non-compliance with building regulations.
The uptick in repression may well be linked to the political tensions stirring in Algiers. Algeria’s next presidential election is due in 2019. With President Bouteflika (81) looking increasingly incapacitated, the jockeying for power — especially between the two major parties — has already begun. That said, despite his obvious frailty (the result of suffering a stroke in 2013), many fear Bouteflika might decide to run for and seize a fifth term. Strikes and riots are on the increase and observers are anticipating a year of escalating unrest. Maybe we should anticipate a year of escalating repression and persecution as the ruling party seeks to establish itself as a champion and defender of Islam.
PLEASE PRAY SPECIFICALLY THAT GOD WILL:
* invade and transform the Algerian situation, so that Algerians en masse will reject repression and yearn for liberty, including religious liberty. ‘For nothing will be impossible with God’ (Luke 1:37 ESV).
* raise up Algerian leaders — not only in politics, but in all fields — who will be strong and courageous, prepared to tackle difficult issues (fundamentalist Islam and religious freedom) and genuine threats (regional and domestic terrorism); leaders who could lead the Algerian people to real peace, real openness and real liberty.
* pour out his Holy Spirit on Algeria’s emerging and growing Church, so that wisdom, courage and grace will abound in the midst of escalating repression. May the Lord give all pastors and Christian leaders great wisdom to navigate these difficult days. ‘My grace is sufficient for you …’ (the promise of 2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
PRAISE AND THANK GOD for sustaining Slimane Bouhafs (51), a Kabyle Christian and convert from Islam, through a very difficult 18 months in prison. Arrested in July 2016 for ‘insulting Islam’ [see RLPB 372 (24 Aug 2016)], Bouhafs was released on Easter Sunday, 1 April, and reunited with his family.
SUMMARY FOR BULLETINS UNABLE TO RUN THE WHOLE ARTICLE
CHURCHES CLOSED AS REPRESSION ESCALATES IN ALGERIA
Algeria’s Presidential Decree of March 2006 made any form of witness to Muslims a criminal offence. Amendments to the law in June 2007 mandated that Christian activities could only take place within government-approved associations and structures. The repressive measures are the efforts of a regime eager to appease fundamentalist and militant Islamists. Persecution has escalated in recent months. Four churches have been closed and 25 of the country’s 45 Protestant churches have received notices to comply with the new regulation or face closure. The escalating repression could be an attempt by the ruling party to demonstrate its Islamic credentials ahead of the 2019 presidential elections. Please pray for Algeria; pray specifically that God will raise up good leaders. May Algeria’s emerging Church have wisdom and grace for these testing times.
Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.
She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).