Senior Christian Leaders in Algeria Face Prison as Rights Decline Continues | Opinion

The Protestant Christian community in Algeria is under siege from its own government. The persecution of Christians by the Algerian state has been a sustained campaign for many years with the latest wave of repression beginning in November 2017. These efforts have failed to slow the growth of the joyful, peaceful and law-abiding Christian community, especially in the Amazigh regions, and so the regime has implemented an escalation. Some of the most senior Christian clergymen in Algeria are now being sentenced to significant jail time on dubious, unjust and undemocratic charges. The regime is pulling out the stops in its attempt to cripple and eradicate a sizable religious community.

In 2006, the previous dictator of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, instituted new legislation by dictat, regulating non-Muslim worship. His regime wielded this law, known as Ordinance 06-03 as a weapon against religious minorities including the Christians and Ahmadis. His successor in dictatorship, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, was instated in sham elections to mollify an Algerian public who were desperate for democracy and human rights. It was merely a tactic of distraction as he represents nothing better than the continuity of "Les Pouvoirs"—the corrupt, rights abusing Powers That Be. Algeria's religious minorities can attest to that. In fact, these communities which have been targeted in waves of repression since 2006 have faced even harsher circumstances throughout the past two years.

While Algerian human rights abuses could hardly be described as subtle, there has been a "nothing to see here" strategy to their repression of minorities. The 2006 law created mechanisms for the issue of permits to places of worship. When churches and other places of non-Muslim worship don't have permits then, of course the government is within its rights to shut them down. Though it should be noted that not a single permit has been issued through this mechanism. When COVID-19 raised its ugly head, all places of worship were closed for public health reasons. Surely a perfectly responsible decision by the Algerian authorities and in line with restrictions executed by various democratic governments. Though when the mosques were given permission to reopen, no such permission was given to churches. The court hearings at which the most recent and most extreme sentences against religious leaders were handed down were delayed several times over the past few months. Perhaps it was coincidence that sentences were issued while the world's gaze is transfixed on the events in Ukraine.

Notre Dame d'Afrique Basilica
A picture shows the Notre Dame d'Afrique Basilica in the Algerian capital Algiers. FAROUK BATICHE/AFP via Getty Images

The tactics of the Algerian authorities have been to chip away quietly at the spirit and the resilience of their minority religious communities. These communities have been exhausted by the government's closure orders on their places of worship and refusal to register their religious organizations in line with legislation from 2012. They have been sapped by issues regarding the import of religious materials. There have been attempts to erode their resolve by periodic vexatious prosecutions for transporting Bibles or other Christian items. When they have been asked to explain their beliefs, their answer has led to prosecution using a vaguely worded article from Ordinance 06-03 which bans "shaking the faith of a Muslim." In the past few years, the prosecutions have increased but now the Algerian government, which directs the decisions of Algeria's courts, feels sufficiently emboldened to send Algeria's most senior clergy to prison. Tebboune is confident that there will be no consequences for such rights abuses.

Should there be any surprise that men like Tebboune perpetrate abuse after abuse in light of Western descent into foreign policy exclusively focused on economic and strategic benefits? A wide array of rights-abusing nations have been testing the electric fences of international norms over several years and have discovered in responses consisting of little more than expressions of concern that the power is not flowing to them. We need no starker example of this than Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine. He started his fence testing a long time ago with various abuses of democracy and violations of human rights including religious freedom. It's noteworthy that, as with Algeria, evangelism is illegal in Russia. Putin had his final confirmation of impunity in 2014 when his annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula prompted a Western response which amounted to turning their faces away.

Last year, the U.S. State Department classified Algeria as a Special Watch List country, which means Algeria engaged in or severely violated religious freedom during the previous year. Such designations require policy responses by the United States government. The U.K. government has also expressed its concern regarding Algeria's religious freedom violations. The U.K. prime minister's special envoy is also chairing the International Religious Freedom and Belief Alliance this year, and the U.K. government is hosting in London the International Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. This must be a moment in which Transatlantic and wider multilateral cooperation could be established to coordinate on the steps required to encourage Algeria in the direction of religious freedom. The West has learnt its lesson that postures of non-intervention do not have better outcomes, and problems left unchecked in far off lands do have serious implications downstream for the international community. At a time in which the reset button is being pressed on international foreign policy, the free world must rediscover the exercise of power, albeit more intelligent and strategically applied, for the sake of humanity.

A clear roadmap should be presented by the international community for Tebboune and his government to implement, including the opening of non-Muslim places of worship, the issuing of permits and licenses, the release of prisoners of conscience and commitments to desist from the harassment and repression of its citizens on account of their religious identity. The failure to comply must have real consequences, not just strongly-worded statements and sanctions, which will have zero impact on the behavior of Algerian authorities. There must be determined, intelligent and calculated implications for ongoing violations of human rights abuses. If the West is serious about creating a world of hope, freedom, peace and prosperity for all peoples then it needs to stand up powerfully and decisively.

Sentences will be appealed but as one Algerian pointed out, there is little hope of justice when the judges are the puppets of the regime. However, Tebboune and his ministers would be wise to note that the Algerian people in general, and their Christians in particular, are strong, determined and resilient. They will not be bullied out of existence.

Miles P. J. Windsor serves as senior manager for strategy and campaigns with the Middle East Action Team at the Religious Freedom Institute. Miles has over a decade of experience in international affairs and religious freedom, during that time focusing on the Middle East and North Africa.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.