Algerian authorities have shutdown an alarming number of Protestant churches in the Kabylia region, home to the country's Berber minority, since October 15. While the government says this is because the churches weren’t up to regulation, members of the community say they are being unfairly targeted.

Authorities shut down three Protestant churches on October 15 and 16 in the province (known as a "wilaya" in Algeria) of Tizi Ouzou, which is located in the northern Algerian region of Grande Kabylie. One of the churches, Plein-Évangile, is the largest Protestant church in the country. Quite a number of amateur videos documenting these closures were posted online, especially on the Facebook pages "Les Chrétiens en Algérie" [“The Christians in Algeria"] and "Église protestante d’Algérie" [“Protestant Church of Algeria”].

Protestant church-goers in Makouda, in Tziz Ouzou province, being kicked out of their church by local authorities in a live Facebook feed on October 15, 2019.

"They claimed that the church was not in compliance with regulation”

Idir (not his real name) is a member of the congregation at the Plein-Évangile Church in Tizi Ouzou. He was at the church when the authorities came to shut it down:

Three days prior, the police came and said that they were going to shut down the church under Waly’s orders [Editor’s note: Waly is the local prefect]. They said that the church was not in compliance with regulation.

Just after we finished services on October 16, about 20 police officers came to shut down our church. About 15 of us were still inside the building. We tried to talk to the officers but when that didn’t work, we sat down inside and refused to leave. One of the police officers called the station for reinforcements. They came bearing truncheons.

"It’s less about enforcing the law and more about trying to divide people”

In Algeria, protestant churches are governed by a February 2006 law “establishing the conditions and regulating the activities of non-Muslim places of worship”. This ruling stipulated that non-Muslim religious groups can only operate with the authorisation of the National Commission of Religious Organisations, which is part of the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

However, the president of the Protestant Church in Algeria, Salaheddine Chalah, says that this law is actually used to make life difficult for protestants.

Since July 2018, authorities have shut down 13 churches in Kabylia-- five in Béjaïa and eight in Tizi Ouzou. The most recent wave of closures began about two weeks ago.

Since 2006, the authorities have made several threats to close our places of worship, under the pretext that the buildings aren’t up to code. We’ve done work on the buildings to meet these security standards, such as making sure that there are no visible electric cables and installing fire extinguishers. One church in Oran was shut down last year but then opened again six months later after work had been done on the building.

We’ve never managed to get authorisation from the National Commission of Religious Organisations even though we’ve taken all of the necessary steps.

Demonstrators gathered on October 13 in Tizi Ouzou to protest against the closure of churches in Algeria and the 2006 law governing churches, which they believe is being used to bully the Protestant religious community.

It’s less about enforcing the law and more about trying to divide people at a sensitive time [Editor’s note: Since February, widespread protests have swept Algeria, leading to the resignation of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on April 2.] The authorities are only shutting down Protestant churches, probably because the congregations of these churches are almost exclusively Algerian, unlike other churches, and we aren’t afraid to express our religious beliefs.

"The protestant community is a dream target"

Church closures aren’t the only clampdown on Algeria’s Protestant community. Some protestants have also been prosecuted for proselytising, which is banned under the 2006 law.

Karima Dirèche, a researcher for CNRS, the largest governmental research organisation in France, has studied evangelical networks across North Africa:

The state uses a church’s failure to meet building codes or get authorisation from the National Commission of Religious Organisations as an opportunity to shut it down.

However, it is important to look at this issue in light of Algeria’s current political context. For the authorities, there is a strategic benefit to sowing discord amongst Algerians by focusing public attention on protestants and the Berber minority. It’s a classic strategy for a regime to try to divide the population. The Protestant community is the perfect target for that aim.

They aren’t the only target, however. The authorities have made a habit of harassing any group that falls outside of their definition of societal norms.

"One reason that Protestant churches [especially evangelical ones] have become such a target is because their members make very public displays of their faith”

One reason that Protestant churches [especially evangelical ones] have become such a target is because their members make very public displays of their faith. Other churches, which have long-established roots in Algeria, such as the Catholic church, hold fewer services and don’t really evangelize-- and haven’t for a long time. Some of them don’t even accept converts.

However, evangelical churches, like the ones that were shut down, are founded on the ideas of proselytizing and preaching. Actually, one of the reasons that these new evangelical churches have been able to associate so closely with the historic Algerian Protestant church is because they tend to recruit so many new members. However, while the 2006 law upholds a person’s right to convert to another religion, it bans proselytism.

Algerian Muslims who convert to evangelical Christianity tend to be drawn by the strong sense of community amongst the congregation as well as the possibility of an alternative model for society that the church offers.

Algerian society has really opened up in terms of religious diversity. While the government still discriminates against Christians, there isn’t violence between religious communities.

The France 24 Observers team contacted the MInistry of Religious Affairs for comment but, for the time being, have received no response to our queries.

Article by Sarra Grira (@SarraGrira).