Algeria (MNN) – Algeria has been stepping up its pressure on churches this year.   There seems to be a ‘cold war’ underway on Christians, as evidenced by a spike in church closures, seizures, and arrests.

It’s been noticeable enough that on more than one occasion this year, the UN Human Rights Committee publicly urged the Algerian government to stop harassing its Christian minority.

Middle East Concern’s Daniel Hoffman says the pressure is systematic in five main areas:

  • Legal recognition of the umbrella organization of Protestant churches –the organization tried to re-register after a change in the law on associations. However, when they filed, the paperwork was never acknowledged
  • The government told individual churches that they were operating illegally because they didn’t have the required permits –but the corresponding offices were not issuing permits
  • A number of people have been on trial after being accused of ‘shaking the faith of a Muslim’, a law that is broad and ill-defined as a legal concept. Hoffman cites the arrest of one person who returned from a visit to another country with key rings bearing Christian inscriptions
  • No Bibles have been allowed to be imported for more than a year
  • Foreign Christians who are visiting can’t apply for visas as tourists. If they’re working with a church, they have to apply for religious visas.  The majority of those are not granted, and those who have applied are blacklisted,  ending future visits as a tourist.

(Photo courtesy of Middle East Concern)

A discrete, systematic harassment

Pressure has been steadily increasing since 2006 when an ordinance went into effect, specifying permission had to be granted before using a building for non-Muslim worship. Basically, Hoffman says, it’s illegal to worship in a place without the right permit. However, “The committee that should issue these licenses has never met, and therefore, has never issued a license or designation for a building to be used as a place for non-Muslim worship.”

Ensnaring Christians in endless red tape is one way to slow down what churches are trying to do. Another method is to divide and conquer. Algeria’s church bodies came together and became one association, The Protestant Church of Algeria (L’Église Protestante d’Algérie / EPA) during the country’s colonial times. They had a leader and spoke with one voice, but that’s not true today.

“… it’s definitely true the government is trying to encourage churches to leave the EPA, the umbrella of the Protestant Churches, and deal with the government on a one-to-one basis, instead of dealing with the government as one (unified entity).” Separation means communication is tougher, and isolation can bring with it its own challenges.

At this point, believers are encouraged to turn to the Word of God for encouragement. However, Bibles are also in shortage in Algeria. “There’s only one entity in the country that is allowed to import bibles, which is the Bible Society”, explains Hoffman.

“It does so for all of the Christian communities, not just the Protestants, but the Catholics and the Orthodox as well.  It is not allowed to print bibles inside the country itself, so the only source of bibles is importing it from other countries, which has not been allowed for more than a year now.”

Good years, bad years, years of prayer

What’s behind the pendulum swing?  Algeria has Christian roots dating back to the second century, but it is obvious Islamic influence has strengthened over time.  In fact, “The president even publicly said in speeches and statements that what they are looking for, the vision to unite the country, is Sunni Islam.  Everything that undermines that narrative of Algeria as a country that is unified by adherence to Sunni Islam, is considered as a security issue.”

Presidential elections will take place during the first semester of 2019.  Abdul Aziz Bouteflika, in power since 1999, will seek a fifth term. Hoffman says followers of Christ are bathing the upcoming elections in prayer.

“Pray for encouragement from the Lord for them that they will stand strong and remain faithful in spite of what they are facing. But they’re also praying for changes in the law and changes in the attitudes and policies of the government towards them, that the government will cease to see them as a threat and allow them to be a source of blessing for the wider society.”

Header photo courtesy of Middle East Concern.