The debate was urgent and often heated at the annual meeting of the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) in May. The looming decision: whether to obey government orders that have closed more than half of the North African country's 50 Protestant churches in the last six months.
Algerian pastors argued the merits of reopening all their churches in a unified protest. But this idea failed to win support, and EPA leadership ultimately elected to leave the decision in the hands of each congregation.
Most of the closures stem from enforcement of Ordinance 06-03, a law restricting non-Muslims from worshiping. The law passed in February 2006, but Algerian officials did not enforce it until this year. In addition to closing churches, authorities have arrested Protestants in western Algeria as they have traveled between cities or exited religious meetings. Authorities have also barred Catholics from ministry outside their church walls.
In the last year, courts have sentenced Tiaret resident Rachid Muhammad Essaghir three times—once for blasphemy and twice for evangelism. The convert from Islam is appealing his cases. No Christian has yet served jail time on religious charges.
The restrictions to religious freedom have coincided with a barrage of antagonistic articles in Arabic newspapers, enflaming tensions between Christians and Muslims. "This is the most pressure Christians have faced in Algeria," said Farid Bouchama, an Algerian Christian broadcaster living in France. "Before it was discrimination from families or jobs, but this is the first organized pressure from the state."
Government officials assert that they are simply guarding against religious ex-tremism and that Christians are under the same restrictions that govern Muslim ...1