Algeria’s proposed constitutional changes a threat to religious liberty, group claims

Algeria’s proposed constitutional changes a threat to religious liberty, group claims

The Monastery of Notre Dame de l'Atlas near Medea, Algeria, is pictured in this undated photo. Seven Trappist monks of the monastery were murdered in 1996 by the members of the Armed Islamic Group. (Credit: CNS photo/courtesy Vatican Dicastery for Communication.)

Ahead of a Nov. 1 referendum on changing Algeria’s constitution, a leading Christian rights organization is voicing concerns over the possible effects on religious freedom.

YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Ahead of a Nov. 1 referendum on changing Algeria’s constitution, a leading Christian rights organization is voicing concerns over the possible effects on religious freedom.

“The proposed constitution removes the language which says ‘freedom of conscience’ shall be inviolable. This removal is what worries many Christians as something which could cause future legal difficulties,” said Claire Evans of International Christian Concern.

There are between 130,000-200,000 Christians living in the country, and they have a history of persecution. During the Algerian Civil War in the 1990’s, Bishop Pierre Claverie of Oran, seven Trappist monks in Tibérine, and a dozen other clergy and religious were murdered.

Christian places of worship continue to be targeted by the state authorities for closure for various administrative technicalities.

“There have been examples in the past of pastors being beaten by the authorities, evangelists arrested, and so on,” Evans told Crux.

“The government is the primary instigator of persecution, which is mostly seen through restrictive church regulations that have left every church feeling intimidated by the threat of closure. At the moment, this aspect is difficult to measure because the pandemic closed every house of worship, and it is unclear what comes next,” she said.

What follows are excerpts from her conversation with Crux.

Crux: International Christian Concern is warning Algeria’s proposed constitutional changes pose a threat to religious freedom in Algeria. Why?

Evans: Algeria’s constitutional referendum will occur on November 1, at which point we anticipate a clearer picture of the country’s political environment. There is language in the proposed constitution which some could argue is an improvement. This added language says that places of worship are protected from any political or ideological influence. Given Algeria’s history of church closures, such language is an improvement, although whether it would have any real meaning is unlikely. The proposed constitution removes the language which says “freedom of conscience” shall be inviolable. This removal is what worries many Christians as something which could cause future legal difficulties. Also, the phrase “political or ideological influence” is extremely vague and open to a variety of interpretations.

How widespread is the persecution of Christians in the country?

The government is the primary instigator of persecution, which is mostly seen through restrictive church regulations that have left every church feeling intimidated by the threat of closure. At the moment, this aspect is difficult to measure because the pandemic closed every house of worship, and it is unclear what comes next.

There have been examples in the past of pastors being beaten by the authorities, evangelists arrested, and so on. But these examples are less frequent. This year, everything feels held in suspension because of the pandemic-political combination.

On a societal level, many within the community sympathize with the challenges Christians face. I am always reminded of a story told by one pastor whose church was closed. This pastor said that the local authorities apologized profusely as they closed his church, saying that they did not agree with this decision, but it was their job. Many pastors tell similar stories of local communities expressing their support of the Christian presence.

Still, particularly in cases where an individual converts from Islam to Christianity, one can find examples of ostracization and discrimination.

How does such persecution affect the country’s Christians?

Persecution always brings stress by forcing Christians to live in survival mode. Surviving is not the same as living. The consequence of every choice has to be carefully evaluated, the pros and cons weighed, a strategy pursued so as to keep the hardship at least manageable. Such a lifestyle brings multiple stressors into every relationship and makes planning for the future much harder. It is not a way that any human should have to live, and the consequences can be deeply profound on both a personal and community level.

ICC has said Algeria’s Christians have seen a rollercoaster of ups and downs” in the country. What does that mean?

A lot of these changing fortunes are connected to Algeria’s political environment. The most violent wave of persecution occurred in the years following Algeria’s independence in 1962. The French movie Of Gods and Men chronicles one of the worst instances of this persecution, when several monks were kidnapped and killed.

The country gained stability in the early 2000s, and persecution became comparatively more subtle. There were no more violent waves targeting Christians, but there were waves of government-sponsored persecution that sought to restrict Christianity.

Despite all of these challenges, the Church has faced consistent growth. There is much encouragement now from church leaders who see increasing openness amongst society about Christianity, but there is also concern that it is motivated more by being against the government than by actually being welcoming to Christianity.

What would you tell a Christian in Algeria who has to keep to the shadows in order to keep their faith alive?

Most Christians are not keeping to the shadows. They are restricted, but they are boldly and unapologetically living their faith. There is so much we can learn from them about maintaining faith even in difficult circumstances, and it really is a posture of learning that we in the West can offer. This includes learning how we can support them, even from a distance. Several Algerian Christians have expressed how isolated they feel, and we can learn how to tell their stories well and in a way which helps connect them to the global Church.

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