After being yanked from a bus just outside of her hometown in Algeria, 35-year-old Habiba Kouider was searched and questioned about her faith. When police found several Bibles and books about Christianity, they detained the Christian convert for 24 hours and brought her before a state prosecutor. The official gave her two options: Convert back to Islam or face charges.
Kouider now faces three years in prison for "practicing non-Muslim religious rites without a license." She is one among dozens of believers arrested this year on religious grounds. Many Christians fear ominous times are ahead for Christians in Algeria, a signatory of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and-at over three times the size of Texas-Africa's second-largest country.
This recent wave of persecution stems from a February 2006 law, Ordinance 06-03, that restricts worship by non-Muslims and creates steep penalties for proselytizing. Coupled with the arrests are closures of more than half of the country's 50 Protestant churches-all ordered within the past six months. "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."
Many Algerians are trying to understand why a law that was established more than two years ago was not implemented until recently. Some analysts attribute the sweeping changes to political currents: Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika needs the support of Islamists if he's going to change the constitution and run for a third term in 2009.
Christian leaders say the crackdown is intended to squelch a Christian movement that continues to grow through indigenous church plants and Christian satellite broadcasts throughout the region. Conservative estimates place the number of Algerian believers at close to 10,000, but some Christian organizations claim there are as many as 30,000 mostly Protestant Christians-a substantial increase from a few hundred in the early 1980s but a small percentage of the country's 34 million people.
Algerian leaders say the new law applies to Muslims as well and is designed to prevent extremism in the wake of two deadly suicide bombings in 2007.
Radwan Masmoudi, founder of the U.S.-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, says Algeria is plagued by "authoritarianism, corruption and lack of economic opportunities" and has been "fertile ground for extremist groups and militants, especially among young people (between 18 and 25 years) who represent over 60 percent of the Algerian population." He told WORLD that he was not aware of the new law but did not believe there was a targeted campaign against Christians. "Repression and oppression does not discriminate between Muslims and non-Muslims," he claims.
But Algerian believers say that only non-Muslims are barred from sharing their faith-proof of discriminatory practices by the state. "They are afraid about what God is doing in Algeria," Bouchama said.
One convert to Christianity and church leader says he is a regular target of the police. Already convicted of evangelism and blasphemy this year, he will soon go on trial for a third time. "I have the feeling they are following me all the time," Rachid Muhammad Essaghir told Compass Direct news service. Local police found a box of Christian books in his possession a year ago and charged him with "distributing documents to shake the faith of a Muslim."
In a separate incident, on May 9 police arrested 37-year-old Essaghir and five other men after a prayer meeting at the leader's home. Four of the six men were convicted, and Essaghir received a six-month suspended sentence and a fine equal to more than $3,000. Friends of the leader say he has no plans to stop his evangelistic activities.
While some Algerian Christians worry about the negative impact of these restrictive laws, others point out the positives: "This is the good thing in hard times of persecution," a Christian leader in Algiers told Compass Direct: "The people you cannot rely on will step back, while the people who are very strong will remain."