4 churches ordered to close in 4 months as pressure against Christians intensifies
Another church has been closed down in northern Algeria, as pressure against Christians intensifies. The village church in Azagher, which had been running for over six years, was forced to stop all activities on 2 March.
Two weeks before, on 18 February, the leaders of the church had received a notification that they must close their church within 15 days. The reason given was that the church building, “which was originally intended for the poultry business”, did not meet the standards required by law in order to host a public meeting. It did not have a second exit and fire extinguisher.
The notification also said the fact the church had a foreign pastor (from the Democratic Republic of the Congo) contradicted a 2008 law “concerning the conditions of entry of foreigners into Algerian territory and their residence, as well as their movements”.
The Azagher church is the fourth forced to close down by local authorities in the past four months. The other three were in or around the north-western town of Oran– L’Oratoire [The Oratory] in Oran’s city centre, a village church in Layayda (about 40km from Oran). Another church in the town of Aïn Turk (15km from Oran) was also closed in November 2017. The authorities claiming that the church had been used to ‘illegally print Gospels and publications intended for evangelism’.Unlike the church in Azagher, the three other churches were all affiliated to the EPA, Algeria’s main Protestant-church body, officially recognised by the government since 1974.
Since December, 25 out of the 45 churches affiliated to EPA have been visited by a committee of officials from the ministry of religious affairs, national gendarmerie, intelligence department and fire brigade “to check compliance with safety regulations.”
The 25 churches were given three months’ notice to comply with safety standards in the past few months. They were also advised to seek permission to operate from the ministry of religious affairs. On 21 February 21, two of the churches which received notifications, in the city of Tizi Ouzou in the eastern province of Kabylie, were asked ‘to cease all religious activities immediately’.
Advocacy group Middle East Concern said earlier this year that the closures were part of a “coordinated campaign of intensified action against churches by the governing authorities”.
An EPA spokesperson said “the government is simply implementing the 2006 law of regulating non-Muslim worship. It is the legal instrument that the government uses to silence the Church. The purpose of this law is precise to curb the activities of churches and to control them”. Algerian law stipulates that permission must be obtained before using a building for non-Muslim worship and that such worship can only be conducted in buildings which have been specifically designated for that purpose.
However, the authorities have failed to respond to almost all applications from churches for places of worship. A local church leader said the government “does absolutely nothing to help Christian communities to afford an adequate place of worship”. He added that it is almost impossible for Christian communities to buy their own plot of land because it is so expensive. Thus all Protestant churches are forced to rent premises and inform the local authorities that they have done so. Those who rent their properties to a church also face threats and intimidation from the authorities, making it even more difficult for Christian communities to find a place to meet.
Mohamed Aissa, the Algerian Minister of Religious Affairs, denied discrimination against the country’s Christian minority. He claimed that the churches “did not meet the standards required for a place of worship”.
“The institutions that were closed have been closed down because they were built without complying with the regulations of the Republic,” he said. If a building lacks emergency exits, it must be closed, even if it is a mosque.
“When a place of worship is built without any notice showing it’s a place of worship, which may enable the state to protect it, this place must be closed,” he added.