Catholics complain of unfair pressure in Algeria

Algeria's tiny Catholic community is in trouble with the authorities because of a mistaken belief that it wants to convert Muslims, the country's Roman Catholic archbishop said on Wednesday.

Archbishop of Algiers Henri Teissier said increased activity by evangelical Christians in the overwhelmingly Muslim country had led to periodic "serious difficulties" for Catholics even though the Church had clearly explained it was not involved.

"For the last two years, we have serious difficulties made for us by the Algerian administration every two or three months," he said in brief remarks to Reuters. "I think it's due to the fight against the proselytising by evangelical groups."

"We are not responsible for this evangelism. But the administration continues to take measures against us," he said.

"(Evangelicals) ... have arrived in Africa. And the first to have suffered from the actions of these groups are Catholics."

Archbishop Teissier was commenting on the case of French priest Pierre Wallez, given a suspended one year prison sentence last month for praying with Christians in western Algeria in a place not authorised for religious worship.

The Christians were Cameroonian illegal migrants based in a gully on the border with Morocco, part of a shifting community of mostly Ghanaian, Nigerian and Cameroonian migrants who have been visited by Roman Catholics priests in the area for years.

Wallez had prayed with the men, but had not celebrated mass, Archbishop Teissier said. The Church has appealed against the sentence.

"They are illegal migrants, of course, but for us they are human beings in difficulty and so we've been seeing them since 1999," said Archbishop Teissier, adding police had always known of the visits.


A Church statement dated Jan 31 and made available by Archbishop Teissier said the visits were intended "to provide a brotherly presence to people living in extreme destitution".

Algeria is almost totally Muslim. According to officials, less than 10,000 Christians, including expatriates, live in the country of 33 million. Most of its Christian colonial settler population fled shortly after independence from France in 1962.

Wallez was convicted under a two-year-old law that limits non-Muslim worship to specific buildings approved by the state.

The law, which also forbids non-Muslims from seeking to convert Muslims, was prompted by what officials have described as an increase in the activities of Christian evangelical sects.

Complaints by government officials about the alleged conversion efforts have reached a crescendo in recent weeks.

Algerian observers say the phenomenon remains a marginal activity that is rooted in a mistaken belief among some Algerians that Western countries will more readily provide them with settlement visas if they have converted to Christianity.

Archbishop Teissier said a co-defendant of Wallez's, a Muslim doctor, was jailed for two years for having used medicines from his own clinic to treat the migrants on a visit he had made to them.

In fact, Archbishop Teissier said, the medicines the doctor used were provided to him by the Catholic diocese.