Closing churches in Algeria

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 5th of November, 2019. Glad to have you along today. Thanks for listening! And good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.  Next up on The World and Everything in It:  persecution in North Africa, in particular, the country of Algeria.

Christians there make up less than 1 percent of the population. All the rest of Algerians are Muslim. And the government tightly regulates all worship that’s not Muslim. By law, Christians have to obtain a special license even to meet together.

REICHARD: But churches had been holding services without much opposition … until a few years ago. In 20-17 the government started enforcing those licensing requirements. And they began closing churches that didn’t go along. Earlier this month, police targeted the country’s two largest congregations.

Joining us now to explain what’s going on is WORLD Africa reporter Onize Ohikere. Good morning, Onize!


REICHARD: Tell us a bit more about those two churches that were recently closed.

OHIKERE: They were the two largest churches in the country’s small Christian population. The first one in Tizi Ouzou province served about 700 people, while the second in Makouda, served 500.A video from the police raid in Tizi Ouzou showed police forcefully pulling and dragging out people who were sitting-in during the closure. Witnesses reported police used force and batons on those who hesitated.

REICHARD: What’s driving this persecution? The government had the licensing requirements in place for years before they started enforcing them. Why start now?

OHIKERE: As you rightly said, the law has existed since 2006, but authorities started to implement it more recently. Christians started to witness more church closures, official visits to check licenses, and more penalties for proselytizing. Christians also reported that intelligence officials started to attend worship. Part of the reason is fear. Majority of the growing Christian population includes converts from Muslims and that’s a threat to the Muslim community and a source of shame for them.

It’s also partly political. Algeria’s presidential election is coming up in December. Also, when this crackdown began two years ago, Former Abdelazziz Bouteflika’s government faced pressure from the main opposition Islamist MSP party, which has now pulled out of the race.

REICHARD: Algeria is a strong U.S. ally. Has the U.S. State Department or any U.S. officials weighed in at all on this situation?

OHIKERE: So since the latest crackdown, the U.S. has not openly issued any condemnation. But groups like the D.C.-based International Christian Concern and World Evangelical Alliance have condemned the crackdown. Just last month, the World Evangelical Alliance raised up the issue of persecution during a visit to the United Nations Human Rights Council. 

France is one of the few countries that has openly worked on the issue. Back in March, it opened an inquiry into the persecution of Christians. And this month, about 500 church leaders sent a joint statement to President Emmanuel Macron asking him to put pressure on Algeria to guarantee the freedom of religion and freedom of worship. 

REICHARD: Aside from the persecution of Christians, Algeria is experiencing some political turmoil right now. Can you tell us briefly about that?

OHIKERE: Sure. The demonstrations started in February after President Bouteflika, who’s been president since 1999, announced that he will return for a fifth term. Bouteflika withdrew his bid and ordered for what he called an inclusive and independent panel to lead the path to reform.

But the protesters have continued to gather weekly on Fridays arguing a free and fair vote can’t hold with the same old political elite and military generals in place. What they’re asking for instead is a restructuring of the entire governing system.

REICHARD: Onize Ohikere is WORLD’s Africa reporter. She’s based in Abuja, Nigeria. Thanks for joining us today!

OHIKERE: You’re welcome, Mary.

Algerian demonstrators take to the streets in the capital Algiers to protest against the government, in Algeria, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Fateh Guidoum)

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