Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
In February, Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders said there were 50 Ahmadi Muslims who were defendants in cases in the court system, a decline from their October 2020 estimate of 220. According to Ahmadiyya Muslim leaders, the authorities failed to pursue many of the cases predating 2018, and the cases were dismissed.
In February, a court in Algiers convicted Said Djabelkhir of blasphemy for “offending the precepts of Islam” and sentenced him to three years in prison and a fine of 50,000 dinars ($360). Djabelkhir is an expert on Sufism and founded the “Circle of Enlightenment for Free Thought,” an association for thinkers and academics who advocate a progressive Islam. Authorities reportedly summoned Djabelkhir to court after a fellow academic filed a complaint that his writings on various Islamic rituals, such as the Hajj and animal sacrifices on Eid al-Fitr, among other critiques, constituted “an attack and mockery of the authentic hadiths of the Sunna [the custom and practice] of the Prophet” and had caused persons psychological harm.
On August 2, Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders reported that the court tried and convicted two of its community members in Adrar on charges of holding an unauthorized gathering. Their Algiers-based lawyer was unable to attend the court proceedings due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions, and the judge refused the defendants’ request to postpone the proceedings. The authorities first imprisoned the two Ahmadis in November 2020, where they remained in pretrial detention until their trial. The court sentenced them to six months’ imprisonment and a 50,000 dinar ($360) fine.
In August, authorities placed Christian convert Soulimane Bouhafs in pretrial detention on terrorism-related charges. According to press reports, plainclothes agents abducted Bouhafs in Tunisia in August and transferred him to Algeria. Bouhafs was a member of the MAK, a political group advocating political autonomy for the Berber region. Authorities designated the MAK a terrorist organization in May. Bouhafs spent two years in prison for insulting the Prophet Muhammad, but the President pardoned him in 2018. Upon his release, Bouhafs fled to Tunisia, where he obtained refugee status from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He was arrested upon his return to Algeria.
In October, Ahmadi Muslim leaders reported courts had convicted several of its community members on charges of holding unauthorized gatherings and unauthorized fundraising. In Batna, a court sentenced an Ahmadi to one year’s imprisonment and a 50,000 dinar ($360) fine; in Tizi Ouzou, a court sentenced an Ahmadi to two months’ imprisonment and a 20,000 dinar ($140) fine; and in Constantine and Tiaret, the court convicted two other Ahmadis who were awaiting their sentences.
In January, during an interview with daily newspaper Liberte, Catholic Archbishop of Algiers Paul Desfarges said he was worried about the removal of the article on freedom of conscience from the constitution, a decision that “greatly grieved and saddened” him, and he said that he could not understand it. He added that he believed the article, along with one on freedom of religion, would “again find its rightful place one day.” The day after the interview, the MRA sent the Catholic Church a letter that said the reporter’s question had misled the Archbishop, and that the conscience clause “provision does not exist in the 2016 constitution nor does it in the previous ones,” adding that the Archbishop had misunderstood the constitution’s translation from Arabic. Other religious leaders also expressed concern about the removal of this language from the constitution.
On March 22, an Oran court upheld the five-year prison sentence and fine of 100,000 dinars ($720) of Hamid Soudad, convicted in 2018 of “denigrating the dogma or precepts of Islam” for reposting a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad on his Facebook account. Soudad’s lawyer, Farid Khemisti, attributed the severity of the sentence to Soudad’s conversion to Christianity.
In April, an Algiers court sentenced Said Djabelkheir, a well-known Islamic Sufi scholar, to three years in prison for “offenses to Islam.” Djabelkheir wrote that the sacrifice of sheep predated Islam and denounced child marriage. Djabelkheir told the newspaper Le Soir d’Algerie that he was surprised by the severity of his sentence and that he planned to file an appeal.
In April, authorities sentenced Hirak political protest activist Walid Kechida to three years in prison for insulting President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and “offending the precepts of Islam.” Authorities arrested Kechida in 2020 after drawing attention by sharing memes that depicted the Prophet on the internet.
NGOs and Ahmadi Muslim religious leaders said the group remained unregistered because the Ministry of Interior never provided the Ahmadi community with a receipt acknowledging a completed registration application that the community submitted to the government in 2012 to reregister the group as the law required. In September, the Ministry of Interior said it had never received a registration application from the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, and Ahmadi leaders reported they were preparing to file another application.
In September, Ahmadi Muslim leaders said they sent a letter requesting to meet with President Tebboune about their registration problems but had not received a response.
In September, the Ahmadi community again reported administrative difficulties and harassment since the community was unregistered and therefore unable to meet legally and collect donations. Members of the community stated that after their initial attempt in 2012, the community again tried to reregister with the MRA and Ministry of Interior as a Muslim group in 2016 and in 2020, but the government refused to accept those applications because it regarded Ahmadis as non-Muslims. The government said in 2019 it would approve the community’s registration as non-Muslims, but the Ahmadis stated they would not accept registration as non-Muslims.
The EPA, the United Methodist Church (UMC), and the Seventh-day Adventist Church said they still had not received responses from the Ministry of Interior to their 2012 and subsequent applications to reregister. According to a pastor associated with the EPA, the Church resubmitted its 2014 registration application in 2015 and 2016, but despite several follow-ups with the government, the Ministry of Interior never accepted its application. None of the churches received receipts for their registration attempts. In March, the EPA said the MRA had told it that the Ministry of Interior was responsible for registration-related decisions and that the MRA could not get involved with the EPA’s registration issue.
In April, EPA leaders reported the Church had sent four letters to President Tebboune requesting to meet with the MRA to address their registration problem. At year’s end, they said they had not received a response.
Some religious groups stated they functioned as registered 60 days after having submitted their application, even though they had not received a Ministry of Interior confirmation. Such groups stated, however, that service providers such as utilities and banks refused to provide services without proof of registration. As a result, these groups faced the same administrative obstacles as unregistered associations. They also had limited standing to pursue legal complaints and could not engage in charitable activities, which required bank accounts.
Numerous Christian leaders stated they had no contact with the National Commission for Non-Muslim Worship, despite its legal mandate to work with them on registration. A Christian NGO and Christian publication stated that the government disproportionately targeted Protestant groups for unfavorable treatment. Some Christian leaders in the country attributed this to the emphasis of some Protestant groups on proselytizing and conversion, as well as to the EPA’s primarily Algerian composition.
The MRA said it did not view Ibadis as a minority group and considered the Ibadi religious school a part of the country’s Muslim community. Muslim scholars stated Ibadis could pray in Sunni mosques, and Sunnis could pray in Ibadi mosques.
On February 14, then Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad reopened mosques, Catholic and Anglican churches, and other public places that the government had closed for a second time in November 2020 as part of its COVID-19 mitigation strategy. On February 28, after the EPA asked the MRA if the reopening applied to other churches, the MRA told EPA leaders that it did not have the authority to authorize churches to reopen, calling the EPA’s request a “political issue.” In March, the MRA told EPA president Pastor Salah Chalah the MRA was not able to authorize its churches to reopen. In March, the EPA reported that local officials denied the Church’s request to resume in-person worship in Oran. When the Church questioned the decision, local authorities showed them a signed authorization to seal the churches – which they threatened to do if the Church did not stop asking for permission to reopen. Despite the restrictions, some EPA churches opted to hold Easter services on April 4. The authorities did not react to the decision, and some churches besides Catholic and Anglican ones continued to hold in-person worship services. In April, Chalah reported that the EPA-affiliated Protestant Church of the Full Gospel in Tizi Ouzou, which Human Rights Watch described as the largest Protestant church in the country, remained closed. Police closed the church in October 2019.
According to Catholic Church officials, the government changed the procedure in January for applying for authorization to conduct non-Islamic religious events. In previous years, the Church submitted its written requests to the local police station, which then stamped the request with a receipt to show the request was registered and approved. Beginning in January, the Church said police stations stopped issuing the receipts. Church leaders also said the police began frequenting one church to inquire about its activities, even though Church officials provided written notification of those activities to the local police.
Some Christian citizens said they continued to use homes or businesses as “house churches” due to government delays in issuing the necessary legal authorizations. Other Christian groups, particularly in the country’s primarily Berber Kabylie region, reportedly held worship services discreetly.
According to the MRA, the government continued to allow government employees to wear religious attire, including the hijab, crosses, and the niqab, at work. Authorities continued to instruct some female government employees, such as security force members, not to wear head and face coverings that they said could complicate the performance of their official duties.
According to media reports, authorities continued to arrest, jail, and fine Christians on charges of proselytizing by non-Muslims, which prompted churches to restrict some activities, such as the distribution of religious literature and holding events in local community centers that Muslims might attend.
On June 30, a court in Ain Defla charged Christian convert Foudhil Bahloul with distributing Bibles, printing religious brochures to distribute to Muslims, and “agitating the faith of Muslims.” Bahloul had been in detention since his initial arrest in April for allegedly receiving donations illegally. At that time, police did not question him about the June 30 charges but reportedly questioned him about his religion and decision to convert from Islam. They also searched his house and confiscated religious materials and his identification documents. On July 7, the court sentenced Bahloul to six months’ imprisonment for illegally accepting donations and for proselytizing. On December 7, the court of appeal in Ain Defla sentenced Bahloul to a six-month suspended prison term and a fine of 100,000 dinars ($720).
Non-Islamic religious texts, music, and video media continued to be available on the informal market, and stores and vendors in the capital sold Bibles in several languages, including Arabic, French, and Tamazight.
In April, EPA leaders reported that the MRA routinely limited the number of Bibles it approved for importation. For example, in late 2020, the Biblical Society, which imported religious texts for all Christian denominations, requested to import 300 Bibles, and the MRA approved 30. The EPA told the MRA there were more than 100,000 Christians in the country and that they therefore needed more than 30 Bibles. The MRA responded by asking for a list of the names and exact number of Christians living in each community, village, and city. The EPA declined to provide this information, and the MRA increased the approved number of Bibles by an additional 5 percent, i.e., by one or two Bibles. The EPA said the import fees cost more than the Bibles themselves but that it would continue to import Bibles only through official channels to avoid legal problems.
On June 6, a judge sentenced Christian Pastor Rachid Seighir to a one-year suspended sentence and a 200,000-dinar ($1,400) fine for “shaking the faith of Muslims” with Christian literature at his bookstore. On June 2, the authorities ordered the sealing of Seighir’s Oratoire City Church in Oran. Bookstore salesman Nouh Hamimi also received a one-year suspended sentence and a fine of 200,000 dinars ($1,400) in the same case.
On November 16, authorities charged EPA President Chalah and three Christian members of his leadership team with proselytizing on social media, practicing non-Muslim religious rites without authorization, and inciting an unarmed gathering. Authorities postponed their trial to 2022.
MRA officials again said the government did not regularly prescreen and approve sermons before imams delivered them during Friday prayers. They also stated the government sometimes provided preapproved sermon topics for Friday prayers to address the public’s concerns following major events or to encourage civic participation through activities such as voting in elections. The MRA said it did not punish imams who did not discuss the suggested sermon topics.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and limited resources, it was unclear if the government continued monitoring sermons delivered in mosques. According to MRA officials, in the past, if a ministry inspector suspected an imam’s sermon was inappropriate, particularly if it supported violent extremism, the inspector had the authority to summon the imam to a “scientific council” composed of Islamic law scholars and other imams who assessed the sermon’s “correctness.” The government could relieve an imam of duty if he was summoned multiple times. The government also monitored activities in mosques for possible security-related offenses, such as recruitment by extremist groups, and prohibited the use of mosques as public meeting places outside of regular prayer hours.
On July 7, the authorities sealed three additional EPA affiliated churches in Oran: the Oratoire City Church in Oran, the House of Hope Church in Ain Turk, and an EPA church in al-Ayaida. In 2020, courts had upheld a 2017 government order to close the City Church in Oran.
At year’s end, there were a total of 20 EPA churches that the government had closed, including 16 that the government had physically sealed off. The government said the churches it closed were operating without government authorization, illegally printing evangelical publications, and failed to meet building safety codes.
The UMC continued to own and maintain Methodist properties throughout the country, despite the absence of an in-country bishop. The government denied the previous bishop’s residency renewal in 2008. Until 2019, the UMC maintained a power of attorney to manage the properties’ legal affairs, although the foreign-based Methodist bishop overseeing the UMC in the country reported that Algerian embassies abroad had regularly delayed the approval process to obtain the power of attorney. In 2021, the UMC continued its attempts to establish another power of attorney since the previous one expired in 2019.
Christian leaders said courts were sometimes biased against non-Muslims in family law cases, such as divorce or custody proceedings.
According to religious community leaders, some local administrations did not always verify religions before conducting marriage ceremonies. As such, some couples were able to marry despite the family code prohibition against Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men.
EPA leaders reported public and private institutions fired some of its members due to their Christian faith and that in the public sector, the government frequently withheld promotions from non-Muslims.
Religious and civil society leaders again reported that the Jewish community faced unofficial, religion-based obstacles to government employment and administrative difficulties when working with government bureaucracy. The MRA said it had not received requests to reopen the synagogues that closed during the period of the country’s war for independence.
Church groups continued to say the government did not respond in a timely fashion to their requests for visas for foreign religious workers and visiting scholars and speakers, resulting in de facto visa refusals. Catholic leaders continued to say their greatest issue with the government was the long and unpredictable wait times for religious workers’ visas.
Catholic and Protestant groups continued to state the delays significantly hindered religious practice. One religious leader said the lack of visa issuances was a major impediment to maintaining contact with the Church’s international organization. Higher-level intervention with officials responsible for visa issuance by senior MRA and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials at the request of religious groups sometimes resulted in the issuance of long-term visas, according to those groups.
In February, Catholic Church leaders reported that COVID-19-related entry requirements further exacerbated existing visa issues related to the Church’s foreign clergy. In January, for example, a Nigerian priest bound for a parish in Oran received his visa, but the government subsequently denied his entry request.
In February, the government denied the Anglican canon’s residency permit and visa renewals. The MRA told him that he was not eligible to renew his visa and had to submit a new application. The MRA also said the Cairo-based Anglican bishop must submit a letter reappointing the canon to his position. The government approved the canon’s visa in May but by year’s end had not approved a visa for his successor.
In April, the foreign-based Methodist bishop overseeing the UMC in the country stated that the UMC “gave up” on requesting clergy visas for its pastors. He said that UMC-affiliated clergy were regularly denied tourist visas. The last official UMC visit to the country took place in 2013.
During a May 5 speech to the Algerian Muslim Ulemas (scholars) Association, Bouabdellah Ghlamallah, former Minister of Religious Affairs and head of the High Islamic Council, stated, “Algerians can only be Muslim.” Ghlamallah said “The seeds sown by France are still germinating,” and he told Muslim scholars to “eradicate these residues.”
In October, local media reported that Algerian Radio management fired Mourad Boukerzaza, the director of the Cirta radio station in Constantine, as well as several other employees, because the station broadcast a Christian-themed song, “Oh Jesus, Life in the Tomb,” by Christian Lebanese singer Fayrouz. Algerian Radio disputed the reports as “fake news” and told state-run Algerie Presse Service (APS) that it fired the director in late September for “malfunctions and errors.”
Government-owned radio stations continued to broadcast Christmas and Easter services in French and Arabic. The country’s state-run dedicated religious television and radio channels broadcast messages against religious extremism and integrated messages of religious moderation into mainstream media. After Friday prayers, state broadcasters aired religious programs countering extremism. Some examples included Au Coeur de Islam (At the Heart of Islam) on Radio Channel 3 and Dans le Sens de l’Islam (Understanding the Meaning of Islam) on national television.
Senior government officials continued to publicly condemn acts of violence committed in the name of Islam and urged all members of society to reject extremist behavior.
The government and public and private companies funded the preservation of some Catholic churches, particularly those of historical importance. The province of Oran, for example, continued to work in partnership with local donors on an extensive renovation of the Catholic chapel at Notre Dame de Santa Cruz and its large statue of the Virgin Mary as part of its cultural patrimony. Catholic Church leaders in Oran reported a good relationship with the authorities and ongoing interfaith dialogue with Muslims there.
According to the government, the MRA contributed to the renovation and restoration of non-Islamic places of worship, specifically Notre Dame d’Afrique in Algiers, the Saint-Augustin Basilica in Annaba, and the Santa Cruz Chapel in Oran. The MRA also said it organized an initiative, in partnership with the Ministry of Interior and local neighborhoods, to clean up Christian cemeteries as part of an ongoing effort to maintain historical and cultural landmarks
According to the government, the authorities regularly invite accredited religious representatives to attend the national holiday ceremonies.