The Church flourishes in Algeria - despite many pressures

Authorities sealing Tafath church in Tizi-Ouzou, Algeria, Oct. 16, 2019 during a wave of enforced church closures.(Photo: Morning Star News)

The people of Algeria first came to know about Christ in the early centuries, and many embraced the Christian faith, building places of worship throughout the country.

However, several centuries later the number of Christians began to decline due in large part to the Islamic invasion, which led to their displacement as they were faced with the difficult choice of converting to Islam, paying a heavy tax (Jizya), being killed or leaving their homes and fleeing to safety elsewhere. Many chose the latter.

Today, the Christian community in Algeria comprises many foreigners who have arrived from all around the world but especially Europe, people who are mostly there because of work, and who are concentrated in the major cities.

But the number of Algerian converts to Christianity is also increasing significantly. Some bravely declare their faith in Christ; others keep it secret for fear of persecution.

The significant growth of Christians has come in spite of the Algerian authorities banning proselytization under the threat of prosecution, which has led to many Christian believers being arrested, imprisoned, or deported outside the country.

As the number of Algerian Christians increases, so too do the churches. Some of these have obtained a licence from the Algerian state, while others are undeclared for fear of persecution, depending on where they are in Algeria.

Algerian Christians take their faith seriously and are devoted in spite of many pressures and threats - something experienced by converts in particular.

To find out more about what life is like for Christians in Algeria and how the church is growing there, Christian Today spoke to Angie Saad, a 33-year-old convert from Islam to Christianity.

What about daily life for Christians in Algeria?

Angie: In Algeria, like any Islamic country in the region, the Muslim majority dominates all aspects of life in society. It is very frightening for any Muslim here to hear about or meet another Algerian who is not like him - a Christian who does not believe what he believes in, and practises different rituals from him.

The Algerian Christian in general is the one who chose to leave Islam and believe in Christ, and as an inevitable result, Algerian Christians do not enjoy any rights related to their freedom to worship or share their faith with others.

Despite this, they are happy when they meet on Saturdays in the churches as one family [churches in Algeria meet on Saturdays because Sunday is a working day in the Islamic country]. Most of the churches meet in homes because the authorities do not allow them to build their own church buildings.

Are pressure and discrimination the norm?

Angie: Sure, they face persecution and pressures. And I do not say this simply because this is what the international reports issued by Europe or the US Committee on Religious Freedom say but because I live in this country and I myself have previously experienced persecution and oppression.

For example, when we went to the restaurant during the day in the month of Ramadan, police were confiscating our IDs for violating the sanctity of Islamic fasting.

In 2019, the authorities launched a fierce campaign against churches, closing 50 churches, most of them in Kabylia, Bejaia and Tizi Ouzou, under the pretext of lacking licences.

At the time, the Algerian Interior Minister said that the churches they closed were ''animal stables and chicken warehouses and the money that comes to them are suspicious money, we do not know where it is coming from, and the business inside it is suspicious."

This prompted the European Parliament to dedicate a session to the state of religious freedoms in Algeria.

The Algerian government is sensitive to Western criticism of "restrictions on freedom of belief" and replied that "the constitution guarantees freedom of belief, and the law on religious rites for non-Muslims regulates them and does not limit them."

Whatever it may say, Algeria approaches this issue with the logic of an entrenched state because the constitution stipulates that Islam is the state religion, and many Algerians actually support the strict enforcement of the law against ''hidden proselytizing campaigns''.

Do Algerian Christians receive support from their counterparts in France? How can they help their Algerian brothers and sisters?

Angie: Yes, in fact pastors from France visit churches in Tizi Ouzou and Bejaia, and offer sermons and moral support for us as Christians. Priests from other African countries also visit churches here to get to know the Algerian Christian community. This is the most important thing we need from them, to feel our presence as part of the family of faith.

What about Christians who are accused of evangelizing Muslims?

Angie: Proselytizing is considered a crime punishable by imprisonment under Algerian law. A Muslim can leave Islam and convert to Christianity and the authorities will not punish him, but he will be subject to follow-up if it is proven that he tried to undermine the faith of another Muslim.

One government employee, Suleiman in Bouhafs, was sentenced to three years in prison and a fine for proselytizing. He lost his job and became a refugee after leaving prison due to the threats against his life.

Two years after the popular movement that led to the ousting of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the reality has not changed and the new authority has not abolished the practices of the "old regime", as discrimination and violence against Christians has continued.

Algeria ranks 24th in the 2021 Open Doors index of persecution. Three Christians were also recently convicted of blasphemy, among them Hamid Soudad, 43, who was sentenced on January 21 to a fine of five years in prison and 100,000 Algerian dinars (around £540) for sharing a caricature of the Prophet of Islam.

You yourself are a convert. Did you face any problems when you converted to Christianity?

Angie: 10 years have passed since my conversion to Christianity and I still remember the first days of my faith, when I was very excited to share my testimony about Christ. I was subjected to a lot of harassment at work and some of my friends abandoned me. It was not easy for me facing a society that does not accept the other, nor freedom of expression.

How do you see the future for Christians in Algeria? Are you worried about their future?

Angie: The current regime wants to improve its image in front of the European Union, especially after the criticism levelled at it. The Algerian constitution guarantees the freedom to practise worship in article 51, but as some critics note, Algeria takes with the left hand what it has given with the right and so the problem does not lie in what the constitution grants, but rather in the prevailing culture in society.

Yet I don't fear for the future presence of Christians in Algeria. The country was the centre of North Africa during the Roman era, when it gave birth to one of the most important figures who inspired Europe, St Augustine of Hippo. And Christians here have learned to face persecution by praying and resorting to the law in defending their rights. The best example of this is their peaceful protest against the decision to close churches. Some local human rights organizations are standing by their side too.

Of course Christianity is not concerned with the abundance of numbers, but rather with building the spiritual and moral character of men, and this is the difference. While it is not possible to estimate the number of Christians in Algeria because there are no official statistics, the church is nonetheless growing as it was in the early years, despite the severe persecution that Christians have faced. Because the first seeds were planted, the harvest must be abundant.