YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Christians in the north African country of Algeria are facing increasing harassment, with three churches shut down due to alleged concerns over building safety regulations and the lack of permits.
“These church closures appear to be part of a larger scheme to interfere with and ultimately drive out religious minority groups. These closures constitute direct violations of the right to religious freedom, which includes the right to worship in community with others,” said Kelsey Zorzi of Alliance Defending Freedom, which defends religious liberty.
Zorzi directs the organization’s global religious freedom office.
She told Crux it’s important that the Algerian government should be held accountable for suppressing freedom of worship and welcomed a decision by five U.S. senators urging the U.S. government to take action regarding increased religious persecution of religious minorities in Algeria.
Following are excerpts of that interview.
Crux: Algerian authorities have recently closed down three churches. What does this mean for the freedom of Christians to worship in that country?
Unfortunately, this is part of a much wider trend that goes back several years. In 2017, Algerian government officials began visiting Protestant churches allegedly in order to check compliance with building safety regulations. However, the authorities were also checking whether the churches had permits to operate as places of worship, even though the government has failed to grant such permits since 2006. After these visits, the government began forcibly closing Protestant churches. These church closures appear to be part of a larger scheme to interfere with and ultimately drive out religious minority groups. These closures constitute direct violations of the right to religious freedom, which includes the right to worship in community with others.
How are Christians generally treated in Algeria?
Christians and other religious minorities face discriminatory treatment in Algeria. The COVID-19 pandemic made this reality even more apparent. Christian churches, for example, faced stricter COVID-19 restrictions than did mosques. Furthermore, after ordering all houses of worship to close during the beginning of the pandemic, the government gradually reopened mosques and even Catholic churches, but it failed to reopen Protestant churches.
Christians have also been increasingly targeted under the country’s archaic blasphemy laws which allow for harsh punishments for religiously dissident speech. Also concerning is the recent effort on behalf of the government to compile information about Christian and atheist teachers in Tizi Ouzou Province and share it with the national intelligence agency.
The constitution of Algeria makes Islam the state religion and mandates that only a Muslim can be elected president. How does that affect religious liberty in the country?
International law is not clear on established religions or this kind, and such arrangements exist in many countries. Regardless, however, there should not be widespread discrimination against minority religious persons in government positions—such discrimination constitutes clear violations of human rights.
Five U.S. Senators have urged the U.S. government to take action regarding increased persecution of religious minorities in Algeria. What more can the U.S. do?
We are very encouraged by the senators’ initiative on this important issue and hope that more action can be done to hold Algerian authorities accountable for their actions. One example of additional measures the U.S. government can take is for the State Department to place Algeria on its Special Watch List (SWL) for its violations of religious freedom. The Special Watch List includes countries that are in danger of becoming Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) because they either tolerate or engage in severe violations of religious freedom in an egregious, ongoing, or systematic manner. In April of this year, the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that the State Department add Algeria to the SWL. The State Department should act on this recommendation. It is going to take coordinated, global efforts and more pressure from international governments to ensure religious freedom is protected for all in Algeria.
Despite the closure of Churches, Christians in the country have defied the order and taken to the streets on protest. What does this tell you about the resilience of the Christian community?
Christianity has ancient roots in Algeria specifically and North Africa more generally. Christians have survived persecution in this region many times throughout history. Despite the ongoing persecution in Algeria, many new churches and congregations continue to grow. In fact, a recent report claims that, despite the country being roughly 95 percent Muslim, Christianity has grown fifty-fold in Algeria in the past decade. These numbers show the incredible resilience of the Algerian Christian community.
If the persecution persists, is there any hope for Christians in the northern African country?
There is hope. Their greatest hope, of course, comes from their faith. And the Christians in Algeria should know and take solace in the fact that people around the world are praying for the end to their persecution, and for God to strengthen and sustain them. There are also multiple religious freedom watchdog organizations around the world who are committed to monitoring and responding to the grave injustices being committed against Christians in Algeria. ADF International, in particular, is committed to defending religious freedom in Algeria and around the world through legal advocacy.