The meeting took place in Algeria, and for this reason, we must focus on the context that led to it.
For the past 20 or so years, groups of Muslims have converted to Christianity in Algeria due to the work of Evangelical Churches from English-speaking countries; this is especially true in the predominantly Berber region of Kabylia. These new converts have gone public with their conversion, a rare event in Arab Muslim countries.
Algerian newspapers, especially in the Arabic press, have published many articles hostile to the trend, blaming the Algerian state for allowing these groups to emerge in a country where Islam is the state religion and officially under the protection of the government.
Algerian authorities have responded by taking ad hoc legal action to solve the problem. On 28 February 2006, they adopted a decree that whilst recognising freedom of worship, called for tough prison terms or hefty fines for anyone or any group that incites Muslims to convert to another religion. Based on this decree and its rules of implementation (May 2007), some unauthorised churches were closed down, and a number of Evangelical Christians were sentenced to prison when they were caught with Bibles in their possession or when they organised meetings for Catechumens. At present, these sentences are before an appeal court.
A Catholic priest was also embroiled in the controversy when he was caught praying with illegal migrants from Cameroon who were meeting in a forest to avoid police checks.
These repressive actions eventually found their way into the international press where they were criticised, most notably by the US State Department in its annual Report on Religious Freedom.
In view of this, Algeria’s Minister of Religious Affairs, Mr Abdallah Ghoulamallah, organised an international symposium in Algiers that was held on 10 and 11 February of this year on the topic of “Freedom of worship, between divine legislation and positive law.”
The meeting was held at Algiers’ Dar el-Imam (House of the Imam), which falls under the jurisdiction of the Religious Affairs Ministry, and brought together about a hundred participants. The Algerian Minister of Religious Affairs chaired the symposium. The president of the Higher Islamic Council was present as were a dozen or so directors of Religious Affairs departments. Some 20 scholars from Muslim universities were asked to begin the symposium, which was followed by a broad debate.
Representatives of Christian groups present in Algeria were asked to contribute to the symposium; they included the country’s Catholic bishops, the representative of the Nunciature, Cairo’s Anglican bishop who is responsible for the Maghreb, the president of the Fédération des Églises protestantes de France, the Methodist superintendent in Switzerland, Algiers’ Adventist pastor, two representatives of Algerian Evangelical groups and an Evangelical leader from the United States. Cardinal Barbarin, archbishop of Lyon, and representatives of the Foreign Ministries of Germany, France, the United States and Palestine were asked to describe the situation in relation to religious freedom in their respective countries.
Altogether, the various presentations looked at the topic from the perspective of international law, the history of Islam or Algerian law. Mgr Ghaleb Bade, Archbishop of Algiers, laid out the position of the Catholic Church vis-à-vis the 2006 decree as it applies to religions other than Islam. The bishop of Constantine raised the issue of freedom of conscience for Muslims who want to become Christian. Rev Baty, president of the Fédération des Eglises protestantes de France, said that inter-faith dialogue should be based on the recognition that no one can impose their religion on others. Evangelical and Adventist representatives spoke about their communities’ right to exist but did not explicitly stress the fact that their members were converts from Islam.
At a personal level, participants interacted with one another in a courteous manner and non-Muslims were given a broad scope to express their views.
Some of the reports presented by Muslim participants focused explicitly on the issue of conversion. Prof Tahar Eddine Amar in particular mentioned Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief”. Prof Mustapha Cherif, of Algiers, raised the issue of proselytising, calling special attention to the limits that exist in an Islamic society like Algeria. Prof Amar Rezki, head of the Legal Affairs Department at the Ministry of Religious Affairs, looked at how legal provisions affect non-Muslims in Algeria.
The symposium did not produce any final document. However, the next week the Minister of Religious Affairs did speak on television about the position Muslim religious authorities expressed at the meeting. Islam and Algerian law, he said, recognise freedom of conscience. This means that every individual is personally free to choose his or her religion. However, he noted that the Algerian state has the responsibility of protecting Islam; for this reason, it cannot tolerate organised proselytising activities by individuals or groups on Algerian soil.
Local and international media did not cover the symposium extensively. On the one hand, the conference upheld the principle that individuals have a right to embrace the religion of their choice; on the other, it reiterated the right of Algerian authorities to control and regulate cultural activities by religious groups, be they Muslim or non-Muslim. It also noted that proselytising by non-Muslim groups in Algeria is unlawful and punishable under the law.
In spite of such limits, the fact that the issue of conversion from Islam was actually raised in front of government officials in an Arab Muslim nation in the presence, among others, of Evangelical Christians of Muslim origin is in and of itself quite remarkable.
Although Christian converts were not allowed to address the meeting, the symposium did constitute an important step in the recognition by the competent authorities of the right of Muslims, as individuals, to freedom of conscience, in a country where Islam is the state religion.