The Sahara covers 80% of Algeria and most of the population of 36.5 million lives along the coast. Until the Arab conquest in the 7th century, Algeria was inhabited by Berbers. They resisted the Arab influence, retreating to mountainous regions, and today comprise about 25% of the population. Algeria was part of the Ottoman empire from the 16th century, and was conquered by the French in 1830. From 1954, more than a million Algerians were killed in the struggle for independence, which was achieved in 1962.
The 1990s were dominated by conflict between the military government and Islamist militants, leading to civil war in which over 200,000 people died. It ended in 2002, but since then Islamic fundamentalists have waged a war of terror in an attempt to impose shari’a principles. They target representatives of the state, the media and foreigners, but also liberal Muslims, including imams, who oppose them.
Democracy is enshrined in Algeria’s constitution, but President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s authoritarian government has restricted political and civil rights (such as freedom of speech and assembly) in the name of fighting Islamist extremism, and government regulations introduced in 2006 have restricted Christian activity.
Corruption is widespread. Oil and gas exports are vital to the economy, but despite large reserves poverty is widespread and unemployment high.
Christians in Algeria
Muslims make up more than 97% of the population of Algeria. The constitution protects the religious freedom of non-Muslims, but it declares that Islam is the state religion and prohibits behaviour incompatible with Islamic morality. Conversion from Islam is not prohibited by law but it is an offence to share one’s Christian faith with a Muslim, punishable by a fine or up to five years’ imprisonment. Christians have been prosecuted and imprisoned under this law.
Under French rule, the number of Roman Catholics in Algeria peaked at about 1 million, but within months of independence 900,000 had fled to Europe. In the 1990s, when Islamists began killing foreigners, 19 Roman Catholic clerics were killed, including a bishop and seven Trappist monks.
Following a period of growth in the past 25 years, especially amongst evangelicals, it is generally estimated that there are now at least 100,000 Christians in Algeria (about 50,000 Protestants and 45,000 Roman Catholics), but growth has been so great that some observers believe the number far exceeds 100,000. It is impossible to estimate accurately, since many Christians must meet in secret. The majority of Christians are Berber, but there are increasing numbers of Arabs turning from Islam to Christ – life is very difficult for them.
Crackdown on Christians
Church groups and buildings must be registered under a law introduced in 2006 to regulate non-Muslim worship. Any religious activity not regulated by the state is a crime, and non-Muslim faiths must be practised only in state-approved places. While the historical churches are allowed to have buildings, other Christian groups face difficulties in registering. Following the implementation of the law in 2008, the government ordered many churches to close, threatening legal action against the leaders. Many churches have been forced underground and meet as house churches, which are officially illegal, using people’s homes or even meeting in the open air.
Amnesty International noted in 2010, “The authorities have consistently refused to register Protestant churches, forcing Protestant communities in Algeria… to worship in places not approved by the state, thereby risking prosecution under the law.”
(Amnesty International, Assist News, Barnabas Fund, BBC, Compass Direct, New York Times, Operation World, World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission)
An Algerian Christian has been sentenced to five years in prison – the maximum term – and heavily fined for blasphemy against Islam and its prophet. [Update September 2015: the sentence has been reduced on appeal to three years, and the fine has been dropped. The Algerian League for Human Rights says it will take the case to the Supreme Court.]
On 25 May 2011 a judge in Oran, 470 km west of Algiers, convicted Siaghi Krimo of insulting the prophet Muhammad and sentenced him to five years in prison.