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”].
“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.