Algerian Christians finally have something to celebrate.
Amid a wave of church closures over the past two years, the State Council of the North African nation has returned a historic place of worship in Mostaganem, a port town on the Mediterranean coast, to the Algerian Protestant Church (EPA).
The EPA loaned the building, which dates from French colonial times, to the Department of Health in 1976. But in 2012, when the site’s medical clinic changed location, the local governor handed over the facility to an Islamic charity.
The EPA took legal action and the case was decided in its favor in 2019.
That year, however, marked an escalation against Protestant churches. Three of the largest congregations in Algeria were closed and the authorities in Mostaganem did not apply the court ruling.
Now they have.
But with 20 other churches ordered to cease their activities – and 13 completely closed – Algerian Christians remain cautious.
“Just because we have the keys,” said Nourredine Benzid, EPA secretary general, “doesn’t mean that the case is over.”
Benzid’s Source of Life Church in Makouda was among those closed in 2019. Located in the mountainous district of Tizi Ouzou, the region is home to many of the country’s 100,000 Christians.
In contrast, the church in Mostaganem was empty when it was loaned to the government. But today, a pastor and a believing community are in the city, and the EPA intends to reopen the building for worship.
Founded in 1974 and officially recognized in 2011, the EPA serves as an umbrella organization for the Protestant community in Algeria. But while a 2006 ordinance guaranteed state protection for non-Muslims, it also stipulated that worship could only be performed in buildings approved for this purpose by the National Commission for Non-Muslim Religious Groups.
To date, not a single church has received authorization.
In addition, the EPA must reapply for a license every four years. In 2014, the request was ignored. In 2018, when new documents were submitted, executives were asked to process their 2014 case first.
The nation is ranked 24th on Open Doors ‘global watch list of the most difficult countries for Jesus’ followers. Only three years ago he was ranked 42nd.
Last December, the United Nations wrote a letter to the Algerian government asking for an explanation. Algiers’ response noted the provisions for religious freedom enshrined in law, as well as historic churches renovated at state expense.
But the Protestant community, he said, was “intransigent” when its places of worship, not churches, were inspected. After exhaustion of “amicable” measures, the premises were closed “to preserve the life and safety of citizens”.
Benzid was livid.
âIt’s a lie from start to finish,â he said. âWe have documents for each church. “
He advised a wait-and-see approach with Mostaganem, given parliamentary elections later this month. The Algiers government is keen, Benzid said, to gain international approval.
Once the attention has passed, the authorities can appeal.
Newly collected keys can find their locks, like other closed churches, sealed with wax.
“We urge the United States and other governments that are economic and security partners with Algeria to raise the issue of religious freedom with the Algerian government,” said Wissam al-Saliby, head of advocacy for the World Evangelical Alliance.
âWe believe that international advocacy and support for the Protestant Church in Algeria is preventing the situation from deteriorating further. “
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also defended the EPA.
Saliby congratulated the Algerian justice for its decision to respect human rights. But he urged the government to reopen all closed churches and drop charges against Christians for alleged proselytism or blasphemy.
In March, a convert identified only as Hamid was sentenced to five years in prison for blasphemy after sharing a cartoon of Muhammad on social media.
Benzid has linked the Mostaganem church to cases like this. If future verdicts overturn previous court rulings, it may be a sign that the Algiers government is showing that it will deal positively with the Protestant church.
Still, given the opportunity this month, he failed to do so.
On June 4, the administrative court of Oran, Algeria’s second city, issued an execution order to seal three churches in the region. While the decision had been made a year earlier, the congregations had been allowed to continue their activities – until now.
And on June 6, in a case filed in 2017, the pastor of Oran Rachid Seighir and his assistant bookseller received a one-year suspended prison sentence for proselytism. Sentenced to a fine of $ 1,500 each, their books were found to violate the provisions of the law which prohibit “shaking the faith of a Muslim”.
They will appeal to the High Court.
Until then, the EPA will follow developments and hope the international community will follow suit. The Mostaganem judgment, although appreciated, should not be overstated.
âThe most important step is to reopen our churches,â Benzid said. âA decision alone does not give us hope. “