Top Christian leaders in Algeria face jail as rights decline continues

Algeria’s Protestant Christian community is besieged by its own government. The persecution of Christians by the Algerian state has been a sustained campaign for many years with the latest wave of repression beginning in November 2017. These efforts have failed to slow the growth of the joyful, peaceful and respectful Christian community laws, especially in the Amazigh regions, and therefore the regime has set up a one-upmanship. Some of Algeria’s most senior Christian clerics are currently facing lengthy prison terms on dubious, unjust and undemocratic charges. The regime is doing everything possible to cripple and eradicate an important religious community.

In 2006, Algeria’s previous dictator, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, instituted new legislation by dictat, regulating non-Muslim worship. His regime used this law, known as Ordinance 06-03, as a weapon against religious minorities, including Christians and Ahmadis. His successor in the dictatorship, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, was enthroned in a sham election to appease an Algerian public desperate for democracy and human rights. It was simply a distraction tactic as it represents nothing better than the continuity of “The Powers” – the powers that be corrupt and abuse of rights. Algeria’s religious minorities can testify to this. In fact, those communities that have been targeted by waves of repression since 2006 have faced even harsher circumstances in the past two years.

While Algeria’s human rights abuses could hardly be called subtle, there has been a “nothing to see here” strategy in their repression of minorities. The 2006 law created mechanisms for licensing places of worship. Where churches and other non-Muslim places of worship do not have permits, the government is of course within its rights to close them down. However, it should be noted that no permits were issued through this mechanism. When COVID-19 reared its head, all places of worship were closed for public health reasons. Surely a perfectly responsible decision by the Algerian authorities and in accordance with the restrictions carried out by various democratic governments. Although when mosques were allowed to reopen, no such permission was given to churches. Court hearings at which the most recent and extreme sentences against religious leaders have been handed down have been repeatedly postponed in recent months. It is perhaps a coincidence that condemnations have been handed down while the eyes of the world are fixed on events in Ukraine.

A picture shows the Basilica of Our Lady of Africa in the Algerian capital Algiers.
FAROUK BATICHE/AFP via Getty Images

The tactic of the Algerian authorities has been to quietly erode the spirit and resilience of their minority religious communities. These communities have been exhausted by government orders closing their places of worship and refusing to register their religious organizations under 2012 legislation. They have been plagued by problems importing religious materials. There were attempts to erode their resolve through periodic vexatious lawsuits for carrying Bibles or other Christian items. When asked to explain their beliefs, their response led to a lawsuit using a vaguely worded section of Ordinance 06-03 that prohibits “undermining the faith of a Muslim”. In recent years prosecutions have increased, but now the Algerian government, which directs the decisions of Algerian courts, feels emboldened enough to send Algeria’s highest clergy to prison. Tebboune is confident that there will be no consequences for such rights violations.

Is it any wonder that men like Tebboune commit abuse after abuse in light of the Western descent towards a foreign policy focused exclusively on economic and strategic advantages? A wide range of rights violating nations have tested electric fences of international standards for several years and have found in responses consisting of little more than expressions of concern that the power is not reaching them. We need no starker example than Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It began its closing tests long ago with various abuses of democracy and violations of human rights, including religious freedom. It should be noted that, as in Algeria, evangelization is illegal in Russia. Putin had his last confirmation of impunity in 2014 when his annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula provoked a Western response that amounted to turning their faces away.

Last year, the US State Department placed Algeria on the Special Watch List, meaning that Algeria has engaged in or seriously violated religious freedom in the previous year. Such designations require policy responses from the United States government. The British government has also expressed concern about violations of religious freedom in Algeria. The UK Prime Minister’s Special Envoy is also chairing the International Alliance for Religious Freedom and Belief this year, and the UK government is hosting the International Ministerial Meeting to Advance Religious Freedom in London. This must be a time when broader transatlantic and multilateral cooperation could be established to coordinate the steps necessary to encourage Algeria in the direction of religious freedom. The West has learned its lesson that hands-off postures do not yield better results, and problems left unchecked in distant lands have serious downstream implications for the international community. At a time when the reset button on international foreign policy is pressed, the free world must rediscover the exercise of power, albeit more intelligently and strategically applied, for the good of humanity.

A clear roadmap should be presented by the international community for Tebboune and his government to implement, including opening non-Muslim places of worship, issuing permits and licenses, releasing prisoners of conscience and commitments to renounce harassment and repression of its citizens because of their religious identity. Failure to comply must have real consequences, not just statements and strong-armed sanctions, which will have no impact on the behavior of the Algerian authorities. There must be determined, intelligent and calculated implications for the continued violations of human rights abuses. If the West really wants to create a world of hope, freedom, peace and prosperity for all people, it must rise up with strength and determination.

Judgments will be appealed but, as one Algerian pointed out, there is little hope for justice when judges are puppets of the regime. However, Tebboune and his ministers would be wise to note that the Algerian people in general, and their Christians in particular, are strong, determined and resilient. They will not be bullied.

Miles PJ Windsor serves as Senior Manager for Strategy and Campaigns on the Middle East Action Team at the Religious Liberty Institute. Miles has over a decade of experience in international affairs and religious liberty, focusing during that time on the Middle East and North Africa.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

About Wesley V. Finley

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