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Algeria. A Strange Case of Religious Freedom

In the present debate on religious freedom in the Arab countries, Amin Elias put forward some reflections made by Dominique Avon in the last edition of the Oasis newsletter, speaking in particular about the progress that has been made with respect to religious freedom in these countries, starting with Lebanon. I would like to add something about what has been going on in Algeria for some twenty years now to his examination of the subject. In fact it seems that no Arab society has experienced an evolution of the same reach in the context of religious freedom.



Indeed it is well-known that in Algeria back in the 90s, some Evangelical communities formed by converts from Islam developed to the point of having reached particularly surprising numbers for those acquainted with Arab societies. It is difficult to give precise figures. The Evangelicals themselves often claim to be at least about forty thousand Christians coming from Islam. This evolution is well known to the Algerian public. In fact, ever since this religious phenomenon began, hundreds of articles in the French and Arabic press have been published.



The press itself has on many occasions forced the Algerian authorities, and in particular the Algerian Ministry of Religious Affairs, to publicly take a stance on the issue. This is why in 2006, a decree was published in Algeria’s Official Bulletin which, after having reconfirmed that the Algerian constitution guarantees the freedom of conscience, declared that it was against actions of proselytism. From that moment on actions of proselytism began to be punished with hard prison sentences and fines. In the following year, 2007, the conditions for the practice of worship were defined with an implementing decree.



These measures spurred on the representatives of the various Christian churches in Algeria to start a debate with the Ministry of Religious Affairs. In this framework the Evangelical representatives had to establish relations with the authorities of the Ministry. I think that it was the first time that in an Arab country the Christians coming from Islam had the possibility to discuss the existence and organisation of their communities of converted Christians with the public authorities.



Since the debate went on in the press and in public opinion, the Algerian Ministry even organised a two-day conference in February 2010 on the subject of religious tolerance. All the representatives of the Christian churches present in Algeria, including the Algerian head of the Evangelicals coming from Islam, were invited to this meeting, along with Muslim university lecturers and a number of officers from the Ministry.



In short, the positions expressed at this conference can be summarised as follows: the Algerian constitution recognises Islam as the state religion, but guarantees freedom of religious worship. The personal religious orientations of citizens belong to them and them alone. But the state must protect Islam and consequently cannot accept deliberate initiatives of proselytism with the aim of converting Muslims.



The situation that is developing in Algeria is therefore particularly new in the Arab-Islamic countries. For the Algerian authorities in fact it is not just a question of debates on religious freedom in principle. They must now manage their relations with entire communities of Algerian converts coming from Islam.