Algeria Detains Christians Leaving Prayer Meeting

Peter Lamprecht | Compass Direct News | Monday, May 19, 2008

Algeria Detains Christians Leaving Prayer Meeting

May 19, 2008

Protestants charged with distributing literature to “shake the faith of Muslims.”

ISTANBUL – Algerian authorities have charged six Christians with distributing illegal religious material after detaining them as they left a prayer meeting in a western city last week.

The Protestants were charged with “distributing documents to shake the faith of Muslims,” according to a written court summons issued Saturday (May 10) prior to the men’s release in Tiaret city. Their first hearing is scheduled for May 27.

During the detainees’ overnight stay at a local police station, officers repeatedly threatened them for converting from Islam to Christianity, one of the Christians said.

“They said we were accomplices and the spies of the Jews, thus we deserve to have our throats cut without pity,” said Djillali Saibi.

Though the court summons did not specify which law the men had violated, the charge quotes a February 2006 law, Ordinance 06-03, internationally criticized for restricting religious freedom. Algerian police and provincial governments have cited Ordinance 06-03 to justify a number of arrests and church closures in recent months.

At least 10 Protestants living in or visiting Tiaret have been detained or convicted since February. Approximately half the country’s Protestant congregations have been ordered to close.

Citing security concerns, police ordered the predominantly Arab Muslim city’s small group of Muslim converts to Christianity to discontinue meeting in members’ homes last December.

Officials said that a bomb had been planted in one of the Christians’ houses, though local church members claimed that the bomb threat was just an excuse by police to push them out. Ordinance 06-03 requires church services to be held in government-sanctioned buildings.

Tiaret Christians said they have continued meeting in small numbers for prayer. It was following one such gathering that police detained worshippers last Friday afternoon (May 9).

Saibi said the men had been poorly treated and were refused the chance to telephone their family members, a right guaranteed under Algerian law. In addition to threats from local police, he said that the public prosecutor insulted them the following day when they met with him to be charged.

“He asked us why we left [Islam], whether it was for money, and what price they paid for us,” Saibi said.

New Law Questioned

Algeria has recently come under increasing international pressure to repeal the February 2006 law used to justify church closures and the arrest of Christians.

French Interior Minister Michel Alliot-Marie raised the situation of the country’s Christians with officials during a visit to Algeria this month, daily el-Khabar reported.

“She inquired about the veracity of media reports saying Christians in Algeria are subject to persecution,” Religious Affairs Minister Bu’Abdallah Ghoulamullah told the paper.

Ghoulamullah denied the reports, claiming that Christians and Muslims were treated equally under the law, according to the May 7 article.

“I’ve explained to the French minister that [just as] we do not allow to open a prayer rooms for Muslims in firms or houses, we, naturally, do the same with Christians.”

Ghoulamullah did not publicly address the specific article in Ordinance 06-03 under which the six Christians in Tiaret were apparently charged last week.

Article 11 calls for up to five years imprisonment and a 1 million dinar (US$16,126) fine for anyone who attempts to convert a Muslim to another religion, or who “makes, stores or distributes” materials for this purpose.

Last week a Protestant woman charged with “practicing non-Muslim religious rites without license,” had her May 7 hearing in Tiaret postponed until next Tuesday (May 20).

She was initially detained for 24 hours in March after police found six personal books on Christianity in her bag during a routine check on a public bus.

Copyright 2008 Compass Direct News