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By Father John Flynn, LC

7/13/2008 (7 years ago)

Zenit News Agency (www.zenit.org)

In more recent years the spread of more intolerant strains of Islam has made life increasingly difficult for Christians.

Highlights

By Father John Flynn, LC

Zenit News Agency (www.zenit.org)

7/13/2008 (7 years ago)

Published in Middle East


ROME (Zenit) - The small Christian community in Algeria has undergone a rough period in the last few months. Two converts to Christianity were recently convicted of promoting their faith and given suspended sentences and fines, the Associated Press reported July 2.

Rachid Mohammed Seghir and Jammal Dahmani were sentenced for the crime of "distributing documents that aimed at weakening the faith of Muslims," said their lawyer Khelloudja Khalfoun.

The convicted are evangelical Protestants, prosecuted when extracts from the Bible and other Christian books were found in one of their cars in 2007.

According to information published by the U.S. government, 99% of Algerians are Muslims.

Earlier, on June 3, following the conviction of four Algerian Christians, a Reuters report said that the state-appointed Higher Islamic Council, which regulates religious practice, had accused Protestant evangelicals of trying to divide Algerians through a secret campaign of gaining converts.

According to the article, under a provision in a 2006 law that limits religious worship to government-approved buildings, more than a dozen churches have been closed in the past six months.

On May 28, Compass Direct News, an agency specializing in reporting on Christian persecution, reported on the case of Christian woman Habiba Kouider. She was arrested in her hometown of Tiaret on March 29.

Police found some Bibles and Christian books in Kouider's handbag and brought her before a state prosecutor. According to Compass Direct News the prosecutor offered to drop the charges against her if Kouider reconverted to Islam.

During the initial hearing Kouider was charged with having materials with the purpose of "shaking the faith" of a Muslim, an offense punishable with up to five years in prison.

Churches closed

The article also reported that in addition to a wave of church closures and court cases against Christians in Algeria, there has been a barrage of negative local press articles warning that Christian evangelism posed a threat to the unity of the country.

Compass Direct published an in-depth look at the situation in Algeria on May 27. The closure of many Protestant churches in preceding months were due to authorities deciding to enforce a February 2006 law that had not been put into practice beforehand.

Most church closures have occurred in the eastern region of Kabylie, a mountainous area dominated by ethnic minority Berbers.

"This is the most pressure Christians have faced in Algeria," said Farid Bouchama, an Algerian televangelist living in France. "Before it was discrimination from families or jobs, but this is the first organized pressure from the state."

The law has also caught up some Catholics as well, Compass Direct reported. Last December a Catholic priest was arrested for praying with Cameroon migrants on the Algerian border. This is a practice followed by Catholic priests for a decade, according to the article. The case is on appeal to the Algerian supreme court.

Catholics prohibited

As well, for the first time in 30 years, Catholic priests were prohibited from celebrating Christmas and Easter services for Italian expatriates working in Algeria's petroleum industry.

Priests must now also ask for government permission for what were previously routine pastoral activities, such as visiting prisoners in jail.

The problems of Catholics were highlighted in a Feb. 27 article published by the Spanish newspaper El Pais. The paper said that two months previously, retired Archbishop Henri Teissier of Algiers, in conjunction with the apostolic nuncio, organized a meeting with 15 ambassadors present in Algeria.

During the meeting the Catholic leader handed to the ambassadors a long list of problems and acts of persecution suffered by Christians since 2006. Among the difficulties revealed was an attempt by authorities in 2007 to force all foreign-born priests and nuns to leave Algeria, supposedly for their own safety, due to threats from Islamic extremists.

According to El Pais, there are about 110 priests and monks and 175 nuns in Algeria. The newspaper said that Archbishop Teissier protested the government action and was able to achieve a change in the decree that threatened to expel the clergy and religious.

Copts under pressure

Egypt is another country where Christians are under threat. According to a July 7 article published by the Washington Post a combination of pressure from Islam and episodes of sectarian violence is forcing the Coptic Christian minority to turn inward for protection.

The estimated 6-8 million Copts, who live with the more than 70 million Muslims in Egypt, have suffered repeated attacks in past months.

In past decades, the Washington Post commented, Muslims and Christians lived together in an atmosphere of religious tolerance and members of both religious mixed freely with each other.

In more recent years the spread of more intolerant strains of Islam has made life increasingly difficult for Christians.

The article also noted that many Copts think government policy considers them as second-class citizens. They require, for example, presidential approval in order to be able to build a church.

One recent attack, reported by the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire on June 19, was the kidnapping of 17-year-old Maria Gerges Labib, who was taken forcibly as she left school in the locality of Abu Al Matamer. The Copt community suspects she was kidnapped with the intention of forcing her to convert to Islam.

Adding to the grievance was the arrest of 17 Copts who were among a group protesting the kidnapping outside the local police station. The peaceful demonstration was held to protest the lack of police action on the kidnapping.

The Avvenire article also mentioned a recent incendiary attack carried out against the Copt monastery of Abu Fana, which was assaulted by a crowd of Muslims protesting what they said was the illegal construction of a wall around the monastery.

There have been some positive developments in Egypt said Paul Marshall, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, in an article published in the March 3 edition of the Weekly Standard magazine.

Converts

Marshall explained that some recent verdicts by Egypt's Court of Administrative Justice granting relief to religious minorities. In one of these, on Feb. 9, it ruled that 12 Christians who had previously converted to Islam may convert back and have their identity documents changed to reflect this.

It was a mixed victory, however, Marshall added. The court also stipulated that the Christians must have the word "ex-Muslim" on their documents. "This essentially marks them as apostates and exposes them to persecution and attack," said Marshall.

Marshall also reported on another decree by the court, in which it ruled that Mohammed Hegazy, who was born a Muslim, could not have his conversion to Christianity recognized. The reason given by the tribunal was that "monotheistic religions were sent by God in chronological order" and therefore one cannot convert to "an older religion."

The issue of converts is, in fact, a problem in a number of Muslim countries. In Somalia Daud Hassan Ali was shot because he had converted from Islam to Christianity, the BBC reported April 15.

His wife, Margaret Ali, made the claim he was killed for having converted after the body of Daud Hassan Ali was found dead at the school his charity had built in Beledweyne.

Rehana Ahmed, from Birmingham, and two Kenyan teachers were also killed. Ali had left Somalia in 1967 and became a Christian after meeting missionaries. After settling in Britain he had gone back to Somalia after retiring so he could establish a school to help educate the many children without education in the country.

The Hakab Private English School was completed just a month before the attack. The blood of martyrs continues to be shed in many countries today.



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