Articles > Religious freedom > 2008 > An Unprecedented Conflict Over Freedom of Conscience
The journal > Year 4 N.8 December 2008 > An Unprecedented Conflict Over Freedom of Conscience

An Unprecedented Conflict Over Freedom of Conscience


Henri Teissier | 01 December 2008

In Algeria the relations between Islam and Christianity, which in recent years have been very productive, at the present time are undergoing a period of crisis after the publication by the state, on 28 February 2006, of an ordinance that regulates the exercise of non-Muslim worship. This document upholds in its preamble that the (Algerian) State guarantees the free exercise of (non-Muslim) worship, tolerance, and respect between the various religions. But in article 10 it envisages prison sentences and severe fines for anybody who ‘incites, forces or uses means of enticement directed towards converting a Muslim to another religion’. Very rapidly, as I will show in the first part of this article, this decree was used by various sectors of the administration of the country to limit the religious freedom of the Christian communities of the country in a very grave way.

However, and this will be the second part of this paper, the Church of Algeria – and many of our Muslim friends – despite deplorable official measures, have not forgone trying to understand how a peaceful and meaningful relationship can be established between Algerian society and the Christian communities of the country. This paper will strive first and foremost to make clear the difficulties that have arisen in Islamic-Christian relations over the last two years. Then I will try to demonstrate how a period of crisis in the relations between Muslims and Christians can also become a favourable opportunity for the development and deepening of this relationship between Christians and Muslims, in particular as regards the difficult subject of ‘freedom of conscience’.

Islamic-Christian relations have a long history in Algeria. Without going back to the colonial period, the name of Monsignor Duval, after the independence of the country, was a positive symbol, and hitherto he has been unanimously respected by Muslim Algerians. However, these relations entered a new stage two years ago. It is above all else this development that I want to describe.

The tensions between the Algerian State and the Christian Churches in Algeria have their origins in the birth and development, above all over the last ten years, of new Christian groups made up of Algerians of Muslim origins who have converted to Christianity. These conversions were the result of the action of evangelical missionaries. At the outset these groups based their action on Bible correspondence courses and on visits by missionaries, above all from the Anglo-Saxon world. But very swiftly this movement became an initiative that was totally indigenous, even though it was supported from outside by television broadcasts and Bible preaching spread in Arabic throughout the perimeter of the Mediterranean.

For about ten years the press, and above all the Arabophone press, was forceful in its condemnation of the development of these groups and rebuked the public powers for not respecting the Constitution of Algeria, which, in declaring that Islam is the State religion, obliges the State to protect Muslims against any attempt at evangelisation.

Maximalist Interpretations

In the end, as I have already observed, the Algerian State issued on 28 February 2006 an ordinance to discipline the exercise of non-Muslim worship in the country. This document was supplemented in May 2007 by two decrees for its implementation which defined the conditions imposed on ‘religious demonstrations’ of non-Muslim worship and clarified the conditions of work of the commission entrusted with supervising non-Muslim worship.

In its preamble the ordinance of 2006 has positive declarations of principle. It states that its objective is to ensure the protection of non-Muslim worship, guarantees freedom of worship and invites people to have respect for religions other than Islam. However, the measures emanated subsequently allow space for maximalist interpretations which are extremely prejudicial to inter-religious peace. Indeed, any form of behaviour or any text susceptible to inciting a Muslim to abandon his or her religion is punished with severe prison sentences (one to three years) and rather heavy fines. For that matter, not only is non-Muslim worship allowed only in public places recognised as having this function and explicitly indicated by the relevant authorities, but, and this is something even more serious, all activity that is not cultural in character is prohibited in these places of worship (this would mean the end of humanitarian service by the Church: nursery schools, clinics, school support, conferences etc.).

All prayer by Christians in a context other than that of a Church are rendered suspect by this measure. In this way, religious assistance for foreign Christian workers in places of work, for groups of pilgrims going to Tamanrasset, the celebrations of immigrants who live on the outskirts of cities, and more generally all prayer meetings or all celebrations of the Eucharist on Sundays in neighbourhoods and towns where recognised ecclesiastical buildings do not exist, become equally suspect.

I will not dwell here in detail upon the numerous measures against the evangelicals who have been directly accused by the authorities and the press of having created visible communities of converts from Islam. I would like, rather, to report on certain of the measures that directly concern the Catholic Church, which, at the level of principle, should not have been accused of proselytism given its concept of Christian witness which respects its Muslim interlocutors.
 

As a matter of fact, the first measures taken by the Algerian State were directed against the Catholic Church which, although it was not responsible for the campaign of evangelisation, became a target for the Algerian State, as was recognised by President Bouteflika himself. Some examples enable us to understand that the new situation created by the ordinance led to measures unconnected with that text. Between 7 and 15 May 2007 all the communities of Catholic men and women religious in all the departments of the North of the country were summoned and invited to leave Algeria for security reasons. From the month of October 2007 onwards it became almost impossible to obtain visas to receive new men and women religious or lay volunteers.

Prohibitions and Vexations

These first measures, which directly targeted the Catholic Church, were then followed by many other decisions: the expulsion on 20 November 2007 of four Christian Brazilian volunteers who had been invited to Algeria by the Archbishop to serve Christian students with grants from portuguese-speaking countries (Mozambique, Angola, the Cape Verde Islands, Guinea Bissau etc.); the prohibition by the Wali of Ouargla on the celebration of Easter Holy Mass in an Italian oil field because of the measures contained in the ordinance on places of worship; the refusal of a visa to various leaders of religious Congregations that work in Algeria; and the refusal of a visa to a lay woman with the motivation, which was expressly declared to the consul in Paris, that she worked in the ‘Catholic’ delegation for cooperation, etc.

Subsequently, in various places and on different occasions, there were maximalist interpretations of the ordinance governing the lives of people engaged in non-Muslim worship. A Catholic priest of the diocese of Oran, Don Pierre Wallez, was held for thirty hours at the gendarmerie station of Maghnia on 9 January 2008 for having prayed two days after Christmas with Christians from Cameroon who lived in a forest near to the frontier between Algeria and Morocco. At the level of principle the ordinance only prohibits ‘worship’ outside a church. This priest had confined himself to making a pastoral visit to Christians where no ‘worship’ was practiced, only common prayer within the context of the great Christian feast of Christmas. This priest was condemned in the first instance to six years in prison with a conditional sentence and then on 9 April to two months in prison with a conditional sentence in the second instance, even given that these visits to these immigrants had taken place more than ten years previously and after the relevant Algerian authorities had been informed by the bishop of the place. The Algerian medical doctor who in a spirit of charity had accompanied the priest on these visits was first condemned to two years in prison, a sentence commuted in the end to six months with a conditional sentence but with the prohibition on his practicing his profession as a public function.

In daily life it happens that the gendarmerie stop priests in the street and accuse them of prosleytism because they are carrying the Bible with them or their breviary (cf. the gendarmerie of Sidi Akacha, near to Ténès). Catholics who arrive by aeroplane have experienced their personal Christian books being confiscated (for example at the airport of Batna in June 2008). A Christian Algerian teacher who was carrying a rosary was stopped by the police and had to undergo a severe interrogation, etc. More recently, last June, the police confiscated from the customs all the copies received individually by mail of Prions en Église and Magnificat, despite a letter of protest by the Archbishop addressed to the Minister for Religious Affairs, which for that matter remained unanswered, etc. In various cities the closure of educational activities animated by the Church is also complained about.

But many of these events depend very often on the molestations of certain high officials and they would not have had major consequences were it not for a fact which has widely influenced public opinion. I am referring here to the distrust of Christians which has become widespread in the country not only because of the campaign against evangelisation carried out by the Arabophone press (hundreds of articles for months) but also because of the public declarations of the Minister for Religious Affairs and the President of the High Islamic Council.

For about ten years, as I have already observed, the Algerian press regularly has offered studies on the phenomenon, which is new in a Muslim country, of the conversion of groups of people of Muslim origins, above all in the region of Kabilia. I will not dwell on the negative articles which very often are published by the Arabophone press and which are happy to repeat what public opinion in Muslim countries habi¬tually thinks about conversions. However, I will point out that during this long ¬period there have also been numerous articles written by journalists of the Francophone press who have raised the question of freedom of conscience. In one of these nume¬rous articles of recent years, taken, by way of example, from the Francophone newspaper of Algiers, Le Soir d’Algérie, one reads: ‘A significant fact is that almost all of the members of these communities are not affiliated to the Catholic Church, which by tradition has been present in Algeria. They are Algerians belonging to a Christian confession, but of the Protestant rite. Many say that they had a spiritual and religious adventure after which they changed their lives, others have encountered faith for the first time, but all of them converge on the path of Christ, stating that they have received his grace.

But whence arises the fact that all of these men and women have experienced such a vital enthusiasm for spirituality by embracing the Christian religion? A sign of the epoch? A phenomenon contemporaneous with the 1990s, so rich in dramatic and significant events for an Algeria that searches for herself and asks herself about her future, it deserves a more acute approach, that of the sociologist. Is it perhaps the expression of a search for identity? This is an epoch, indeed, favourable to this kind of research in which many scrutinise the horizon hunting for a model that will give them certainties? Is this an attempt at a re-appropriation of the Augustinian heritage which is hidden under the ashes of the century? Does this phenomenon have some ties with the immediate contemporary reality of Algeria at a time when Islamism is shaking the country against a background of murderous violence? Or does it simple express a fashion, a palliative of a transient need for identification? Is there still behind this spiritual experience a desire to transcend the materiality of existence, a therapeutic research in the face of an existential anxiety where the search for the meaning of life has shifted from earth to heaven?’

Journalists, Trade Unions and Christians


We can see therefore, by the above quotation, that even before the contemporary crisis certain journalists had expressed themselves in a positive way about the subject of freedom of conscience, including the right for a Muslim to change his or her religion. But what is really new for an Arab country is that the worsening of the situation provoked by the decrees of 28 February 2006 has provoked in liberal Muslim opinion in Algeria a collective reaction in defence of the rights of the new Christians who come from Islam.

Indeed, after the levelling of charges in April-May 2007 by the judicial system against a young Algerian teacher from Tiaret, one ‘Habiba’, who had converted to evangelical Christianity, an authentic public debate came into being in which one part of the participants publicly defended the right to freedom of conscience of ‘Habbiba’ and of all Algerians. The Algerian Francophone newspaper El Watan even took the initiative of publishing a petition which was then signed by more than two thousand Algerian intellectuals, the text of which reads: ‘journalists sentenced to prison and threatened with imprisonment. Trade unionists fired for having requested decent wages. Christians vexed for the crime of prayer. The signatories, strongly concerned about this increased attack on democratic freedoms, express their solidarity with the free journalists, the autonomous trade unions and the Christian community of Algeria who are the target of measures that are as brutal as they are unjustified; they re-affirm their attachment to freedom of expression, to trade union pluralism and to freedom of conscience, which are synonymous with the right of every individual to practice the religion he or she chooses or not to practice a religion at all; they invite people to have tolerance and respect for freedom and diversity, which are cardinal values of every democratic society’ [El Watan, Tuesday 18 March 2008, p. 6].

In the same direction is the declaration made by the Rassemblement pour la culture et la Démocratie, one of the principal Algerian opposition parties, and its President Dr. Said Saadi, in its presentation given by the newspaper El Watan: ‘Freedom of worship has been ‘hit’. The RCD reacts. The party of Said Saadi indeed condemns ‘opinion makers engaged in permanent service who have launched an inquisitorial campaign to denounce the evangelisation of the country’…the RCD argues, in a communiqué issued yesterday, that this is an attack on the Constitution and the international pacts signed by Algeria which ‘guarantee respectively freedom of worship and freedom of conscience’. In the view of Saadi there is no shadow of doubt that this is a ‘real operation of persecution’ carried out against the Christians of Algeria. ‘This campaign, carried forward with a great deal of noise in the mass media, has an appearance – the defence of Islam – but it also has a reality – to seal once again the alliance between Bouteflika and the current of radical Islam’, it was emphasised in the same communiqué’ [El Watan, Thursday 28 February 2008, p. 2].

Similar declarations can be found in a declaration published by the Maison des droits de l’homme e du citoyen de Tizi Ouzou: ‘We invite all those... who can influence events to demonstrate wisdom and a sense of responsibility: Algeria does not need to be launched into a false war of religion. For the militants of human rights, freedom of worship and of conscience is an untouchable principle. The public powers must watch over full respect for the obligations contained in the treaties and in the agreements ratified by Algeria; many of these documents make explicit reference to them’.

The head of government of the time, Belkhadem, is directly named by Le Soir d’Algérie in an article entitled ‘The Time of the Inquisition’ on the subject of freedom of conscience: ‘at regular intervals Islam uses goods for exchange and the concessions made to Islamists are presented as a necessary evil. The implementation of national reconciliation has not settled matters. Even worse, we are witnesses to a vigorous return of the religious... Proclaiming that ‘Algerian society has been linked to the holy Koran ever since it embraced Islam and that the Koran constitutes the Constitution whose alteration Algerian society will not accept’, the head of government, in addition to violating the principle of freedom of conscience only legitimates the hunt for non-Muslims carried out with beating rums by the Ministry for Religious Affairs. In less than a month twenty-five Christian communities have been notified of the order to stop all their activities. Algerians who have converted to Christianity are persecuted at a judicial level and some leaders of the Churches are forced to leave Algeria because they constitute ‘a threat to the security of the nation’. Even more serious, a young woman runs the risk of three years in prison in Tiaret. She was arrested when she was in possession of a number of copies of the Bible, which was sufficient for charges to be brought against her’ [Nawel Imès, Le Soir d’Algérie, Monday 26 May 2008, p. 3].

One of the most prominent contemporary Algerian thinkers who is resident in France but went to Algeria for a conference, Soheib Bencheikh, makes speeches which go in the same direction and are published by the newspaper El Watan: ‘‘A legislator or moraliser cannot penetrate the conscience of people’, observed Soheib Bencheikh, the former mufti of Marseilles... Discouraged by the turn of events, he joins his voice to that of those who denounce the witch hunt, raising the paradox of modern Algeria. Indeed, at a time when an international colloquium on the idea of human rights of the Emir Abdelkader is being held, with emphasis being placed on his defence of the Christians of the Middle East, the Tribunal of Tiaret is judging a woman for the ‘illegal practice of a religion other than Islam’. ‘Faith is not decided by decree’, says Bencheikh, rejecting ‘the way the national administration does things’, as well as ‘those ways of acting which are in full contradiction with our religion which fosters confessions and protects them’. All of this with quotations to the full from those suras that provide a foundation to his declarations, specifically the verses on tolerance, religious diversity and no constriction in the faith’ [‘Notre nation est vouée à l’enfermement’, Thursday 22 May 2008, p. 2].

Faced with Conversions

Beyond these stances of liberal public opinion in Algeria, it is very significant that the Minister for Religious Affairs, Ghoulamallah, has declared on a number of occasions that he supports freedom of conscience, including the possibility for a Muslim to change his or her religion, adding that what the Algerian State fears is the creation of religious minorities who will then try to appeal to other countries to defend their rights.

It is known that the debate in Islam on the status of a Muslim who abandons Islam to convert to another religion (a murtadd) is a very old debate but also a very topical one. The Koran threatens the apostate only with penalties in the other world (for example, 16:108). But the hadîth envisages an apostate being put to death. The fuqahâ’, or specialists in the shari'a, debate about how this traditions should be interpreted. Some contemporary exegetes say that one should take into account the fact that the radical verses were pronounced in the context of a threat of revolt of the tribes of the Arab peninsula which would have endangered the very existence of the young Muslim State as it actually happened under the caliphate of Abu Bakr. As a result these suras should be understood as a condemnation of treason when the nation was endangered. The principle ‘there is no constriction in the faith’ is said to remain valid. But the new fact that the Algerian State has to face is the conversion of hundreds perhaps thousands of people who were born in Muslim families and who publicly choose to adhere to Christianity. Indeed, this debate in the Algerian press did not begin starting with the specific criteria of Muslim exegesis. For the Francophone press, which is generally more open as regards personal beliefs, this was a debate about freedom of conscience, beginning with an approach involving human rights.

A very important development has thus been produced in Algeria by this movement of conversions. One is not dealing, in fact, with the private opinion of a specialist but of a reaction at the level of conscience of hundreds of journalists and thousands of Muslim intellectuals who defend the freedom of conscience of those of their fellow countrymen who have chosen to leave Islam to embrace another confession. I do not know another Arab country where there has already been a debate of this breadth about freedom of conscience understood as the freedom of Muslims to abandon their religion of birth and to choose to adhere freely to another confession.
 

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