TIZI-OUZOU, Algeria (Morning Star News) – Church leaders didn’t get an explanation for why the seventh worship building to be closed in Algeria since November was sealed last week, but they suspect lack of registration was the pretext.
It is virtually impossible to register a church in Algeria under current restrictions. Although three of the six churches previously closed were allowed to reopen last month, the shuttering on Wednesday (July 11) of the church building in the northeastern town of Riki was taken as a sign that harassment of Christian institutions that began in November is not over.
The church of about 60 people, which began meeting at its building in Riki, near Akbou in Bejaia Province, on Aug. 11, 2017, had not been able to affiliate with the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) because the Ministry of Interior recently ordered the once-legally recognized association to freeze all new applications for membership, said Esaid Benamara, pastor of the Riki church.
After the church finished worship on July 7, a Saturday, the congregation was surprised when policemen in two vehicles arrived and asked Pastor Benamara to come to their office. They agreed to his offer to come the next day, and the pastor and his brother went to the office.
“Once there, they let us know that they had been ordered to close the premises of our church and the sealing of the entrance doors,” Pastor Benamara told Morning Star News. “We then asked that they give us the order in question, or at least a copy. ‘We’ll give it to you later,’ one of them told us.”
On July 10, the pastor received a phone call from the police (gendarmerie) asking him to go to their brigade post as soon as possible, and again he went with his brother. They waited there until 7 p.m., when the brigade chief showed up and asked them to leave and return with the building owner because the closure notification was sent to him, the pastor said.
They returned with the building owner the next day.
“They presented a statement to Mahdi Amara [the building owner], asking him to sign it, because the closing order was addressed to him in person,”Pastor Benamara said. “Then they told us that they would go later in the day to execute the order received from the wali [Bejaia provincial chief].”
Near noon on July 11, two vans from the gendarmerie brigade parked at the door of the church, he said.
“Three of the gendarmes entered the church and executed their order. They put the curtain and the front door under seal, which strictly forbids us to open the doors of the church once closed,” Pastor Benamara told Morning Star News. “After execution of the order of the wali of Bejaia to close the premises, the gendarmes left.”
The policemen told them they had sent a notification of closure to the building owner dated Feb. 24, “something we have never received,” the pastor said.
“That’s where we are,” he said. “Thus our church is closed, and our faithful can no longer meet.”
A 2007 executive decree requires all non-Muslim places of worship in Algeria to register with the state, according to the U.S. State Department. Pastor Benamara said the government freeze on new EPA members has kept it from registering.
Laws passed in 2012 required the EPA, which the government had given legal recognition to in 1974, to re-register, but officials have yet to give a response since the EPA applied for re-registration in 2013, leaving the umbrella association itself in legal limbo.
Christian leaders note that the Algerian constitution’s Article 42 guarantees freedom of belief, opinion and worship.
“This is injustice,” Pastor Benamara said. “The authorities who are supposed to respect and enforce the laws of the republic themselves do not respect them. Is it not true that Algerian law and international laws respect and demand respect for all religions as much as Islam? And also their practice? Why are they flouting these laws of the republic?”
On May 26 authorities ordered the closure of a church building in Ait-Mellikeche, also in Bejaia Province, and another church building in Maatkas, in Tizi-Ouzou Province. A church in a village in Azagher, like Riki near Akbou, was closed in March.
At the same time, all churches affiliated with the EPA have been visited by investigators and ordered to comply with requirements for non-Muslim places of worship or face closure.
Church buildings previously closed in Oran city, Ain Turk and El Ayaida, all in Oran Province about 250 miles west of Algiers, were allowed to reopen last month.
Also last week, a court on July 8 dropped charges against a Christian fined 20,000 Algerian dinars (US$172) plus customs expenses for carrying Christian literature and some crucifix-shaped keychains into the country.
Idir Hamdad, a 29-year-old convert from Islam, had been sentenced by a judge at a court in Dar el Beida, on the outskirts of Algiers, who ruled he was guilty of importing unauthorized items without a license.
Notice of a six-month prison sentence and fine had been delivered to his home on March 4 stating that he had been convicted and sentenced en absentia on Sept. 28, 2017, but the prison sentence was withdrawn on May 3.
Algeria ranked 42nd on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2018 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.