Algeria is the largest country in Africa and is 80% desert, with most of the population living 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 Sharia 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 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 restricted Christian activity. President Bouteflika resigned on 2 April 2019 amid mass protests, and in December 2019 a new president was elected, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who had been briefly Prime Minister in 2017.
Oil and gas exports are vital to Algeria’s economy, but despite large reserves poverty is widespread and unemployment high. Corruption is widespread.
Christians in Algeria
Christianity dates back to the early church, but was gradually wiped out during the Arab conquest.
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.
The constitution declares that Islam is the state religion and prohibits behaviour incompatible with Islamic morality. Article 36 states that freedom of religious worship is guaranteed if in compliance with the law. 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, and they are also at risk of prosecution for blasphemy.
Following huge growth in the number of Christians the past 25 years, especially among 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 could be over 200,000. It is impossible to estimate accurately, since many Christians must meet in secret. The majority of Christians are Berber, but there is an increasing number of Arabs converts and life is very difficult for them. They face pressure from family and community and sometimes forcible divorce, removal of child custody and loss of inheritance.
Crackdown on Christians
Under a law introduced in 2006 to regulate non-Muslim worship, all places of non-Muslim worship must be licenced. However, the commission set up in 2006 to licence churches has never met. The government has ignored all applications and has not issued any new licence for a church building (although the historical churches are allowed to have buildings). Because of this, many churches have sought protection by affiliating with l’Église Protestante d’Algérie (EPA), the umbrella organisation of Protestant churches in Algeria, which had legal status before 2006. 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, in homes or even in the open air.
Since November 2017, the Algerian authorities have been engaged in a crackdown on the EPA, demanding that affiliated churches prove they have licences and threatening them with closure. The campaign is built on a pretext of carrying out safety inspections: most EPA-affiliated churches have been inspected by so-called “building-safety committees”, which also ask to see the licence authorising each building’s use for non-Muslim worship. Because they cannot show licences, many have been closed down. Since the crackdown began, 13 EPA-affiliated churches and six other churches have been ordered to close and have had their buildings sealed.
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/Middle East Concern/New York Times/Operation World/ World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission/World Watch Monitor)
Algerian authorities have sealed the buildings of three more churches, including the country’s two largest.
On 26 September, Algerian authorities closed a church building in Tizi Ouzou province, two days after closing another church in the same province.
Christian places of worship continue to be targeted by authorities and churches are closed despite having applied for permits.
Slimane Bouhafs has been released from prison at the end of his twenty-month sentence for “insulting Islam and the Prophet Mohammad”.
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.]