Recently our friends at the well-known Christian religious freedom organization International Christian Concern (ICC) provided a webinar with the latest information on the ground in Algeria. The webinar focused on the closing of Protestant churches in the country.
According to a report done by ICC these closings seemed to be accelerating as 2019 drew to a close. The situation is such that earlier this year another well-respected Christian organization, Open Doors USA, placed Algeria at number seventeen on its World Watch List.
The year 2019 brought about some welcome political change to Algeria. After two decades in office, beginning in 1999, President Abdelaziz Buteflika was no longer in power. Over the last couple of years, unexplained and extended periods of absence by the President caused concerns about his health. But Buteflika nevertheless stood for a fifth term as president until weeks of protests led to his resignation.
Abdelmadjid Tebbune was elected President of Algeria in December 2019 with 58 percent of the vote. The change in leadership was welcomed on the street because the new President is actually an Independent with no party affiliation. It was hoped that with a new leader would come new freedom for Algeria’s churches.
In spite of the election of Tebbune, the number of church closures actually increased towards the end of 2019. Superficially, the church closures are justified because of “safety violations” and other such legal problems. But there is a very specific situation that could explain why the churches are being closed.
There is a clause in the oath of office for any incoming Algerian President that the incoming leader has to “glorify the Islamic religion.” With all of the issues that have had an impact on Algeria over recent years this could explain some of the recent moves by the Government. Under Islamic supremacism, glorifying the Islamic religion requires suppressing other religions, especially Christianity.
The Algerian Church is the second-largest church community in North Africa. Estimates of the current size range from 20,000 to 200,000 members. One report in 2011 stated that the number was 45,000. It has existed for centuries and is tolerated by the broader society in the Muslim majority country. The problem is solely on the government side.
In contrast to the relative harmony between the Christians and the wider Muslim society, the government views the presence of Christianity as a threat to the Islamic identity. And the government has come up with a solution to that threat. It is working on imposing enough regulations to regulate the churches out of the nation.
The Church is not going away quietly either. At least 45 Protestant Churches have formed a group known as the Evangelical Protestant Association (EPA). This group has been approved by the government and currently has members drawn from the many tribal and ethnic identities. The largest single church that was a member of the EPA had over a thousand members before it was closed by the government in 2019.
However, the Algerian government has been using a 2012 law on associations to effectively silence the EPA. The government does this by delaying responding to the effort that the EPA makes to recertify, according to the ICC brief. They report that the EPA has been trying to renew their registration since 2016 to no avail.
Algeria’s Safety Commission was created in 2017. Its members include officials from municipalities, the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the National Gendarmerie, the Fire Brigade and the Intelligence Departments according to the ICC brief. It appears to be the modus operandi for closing these houses of worship. Most of the EPA-affiliated churches were visited by members of the Safety Commission.
This is not the first time the Protestant community in Algeria has been the target of persecution. International Christian Concern’s brief notes that “Since the early 2000s, the protestant community in Algeria has faced three waves of government-sponsored persecution.” And each time, “the authorities target places of worship, shutting them down and refusing to recognize their legitimacy.”
The previous two waves of persecution were stopped after international outcry. The most recent campaign began in 2017, not coincidentally, the same year that the Safety Commission was created. This campaign forced 18 churches to close. Five of those churches were reopened, according to the ICC brief, but 13 remain closed.
In summary, even though a new government is ruling in Algiers it appears that the apparatus of government is still exercising its power unabated. The transition period has ended. International pressure stopped church closures in the past. International pressure is needed again. It is now time for questions to be asked and for the Government of Algeria to be pressured to honor religious freedom for the nation’s churches.