ALGERIA: Church closure campaign intensifies

Tigzirt doors sealedOn 26 September, the campaign to close Algerian churches continued as the authorities sealed shut a church building in Tigzirt, Tizi Ouzou province, just two days after sealing another church in Boghni, in the same province. Tizi Ouzou is in the Kabylie region of northern Algeria.

Police had announced the previous day that the church building in Tigzirt would be closed soon. “They told us that they are giving us time to clear useful objects out before they come back to seal it,” church leader Ali Zerdoud told Morning Star News. “I can only say one thing: This is an injustice.”

The church of seventy mainly elderly members opened in 2015, after a Bible school started in 2013, and is affiliated with l’Église Protestante d’Algérie (EPA), the legally-recognised umbrella organisation of Protestant churches in Algeria. The image depicts the notice and seal affixed to the door of the building.

The  closure of the Tigzirt church raises the number of sealed EPA-affiliated church buildings to nine. Middle East Concern reports that another four churches have been ordered to cease all activities and that in at least two cases the authorities have put pressure on landlords to deny church members access to rented premises.

Campaign against churches

Since November 2017, the Algerian authorities have been engaged in a campaign against 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. Middle East Concern reports that 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.

Algeria passed a law in 2006 to regulate non-Muslim worship, stipulating that 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 licence for a church building. Because of this, many churches have sought protection by affiliating with the EPA, which had legal status before 2006.

Algeria church bannersThe image shows protest banners in French, which is widely used in Algeria due to its colonial past. The lowest banner references “L’Ord: No. 06-03 de 2006”, which is the law to regulate non-Muslim worship.

On 28 August 2019, Algeria’s Minister of Interior, as head of the National Security Committee, issued an order directing regional governors and security heads to intensify investigations into the financial activities of leaders of the EPA and of two radical Islamic groups. The title of the order translates as “The activities of religious groups that contradict national religious constants, in particular their destructive/subversive attempts in this period the country is going through.”

The order claims that EPA leaders have a “vicious plan… supported by foreign parties” to spread “destructive ideas” and instructs security heads to “strengthen with all harshness, activities aiming at investigating the commercial activities of Protestant leaders”.

Church building sealed without warning

Boghni church buildingTwo days before the closure of the Tigzirt church, the authorities sealed a church building in Boghni, 35 km south of the city of Tizi Ouzou, the provincial capital. The church building (pictured) serves two congregations, both of which have been affiliated with the EPA for about ten years.

Eight police officers arrived at the Church of Boghni building on 24 September and sealed the doors and windows shut. “I was surprised when one of the police officers contacted me to meet them at the site where our church is,” Pastor Tahar Chergui told Morning Star News. “I had not received any notice; they went straight to proceed with the closure by sealing. They could have warned us before; why didn’t they?

The building serves the 190 members of Pastor Chergui’s Church of Boghni (which began in 1995 and serves people from eight surrounding villages) as well as a congregation of nearly two hundred people from Assi-Youcef village, which meets in the same building on Saturdays.

Officers posted a notice on the building stating it had been closed due to lack of registration under the 2006 law on non-Muslim worship. The notice stated: “We, the police of Boghni, inform the whole population of Boghni that the premises illegally used by the named Tahar Chergui to celebrate non-Muslim worship was closed and sealed by order of the governor dated Sept. 18, 2019. Signed by the president of district security.”

Christians occupy church to prevent closure

Early on the morning of 2 September, police arrived at Prince of Peace Church in Ighzer Amokrane, Bejaia province, in the Kabylie region, and sealed the building. A closure order had been issued in mid-August.

On 26 August, when police first arrived to close the church, they faced resistance from two hundred Christians representing 33 congregations who occupied the building and refused to leave, spending the day praying. They were accompanied by the EPA’s president and lawyer, who informed police that the order was illegal as it had not been issued by a court. The police retreated.

A meeting between EPA leaders and provincial authorities on 28 August ended with a promise of further consideration, but nothing was heard until 2 September, when police returned early in the morning and sealed the building.

Read more about Algeria in Church in Chains’ Algeria Country Profile.

(International Christian Concern/Middle East Concern/Morning Star News/Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin)