Song on Algerian radio show brings Christian minority's plight to the fore

Algeria's Christian minority faces discrimination and prosecution amidst growing fundamentalism and government's failure to impose religious equality. The  file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution

This piece was originally published on 22 October 2021 by Raseef22, an independent media platform. An edited version is republished here, under a content-sharing agreement.

Christians in Algeria are caught in a new crisis, which many feel is reflective of the intolerance with which the Algerian state deals with Christians and their beliefs.

This latest impasse began when a morning show on the state-owned Radio Constantine broadcasted the song “Eid al-Layl” (Night of the Feast) by renowned singer Fayrouz, which had a line that said: “Jesus visited the night…Jesus colored the night.” Not long after, the director of the radio station, Mourad Boukerzaza, was dismissed from his position, after being investigated for broadcasting songs and hymns glorifying the Christian religion.

News of his dismissal sparked an uproar on social media pages, between those opposing what they saw as the country becoming more “Daesh-like”, and those in favor of fighting religious proselytism.

Such angry reactions were followed by Algerian Public Radio (EPRS) denying any relation between the radio station director's dismissal and the broadcast of Christian hymns. It disclosed that Mourad had been removed from his position for purely administrative reasons.

The government’s statement aside, the marginalization of Algerian Christians has worsened in the past few years, with many hiding their faith and belief from colleagues for fear of persecution.

The fall from grace

Although the arrival of Christianity in Algeria happened in Roman times, its modern revival came at the hands of European immigrants in the nineteenth century. These European newcomers built churches, schools, and health centers, which led to a number of Algerian Muslims converting to Christianity, especially in the northern, Berber-speaking Kabylia region.

During this time, Catholic Christians of European origin had the best chance of obtaining high-level government positions, as well as appropriating a significant share of the Algerian economy.

Algeria's independence on July 5, 1962 marked the end of the golden age for Christians in the country. Statistics indicate that Christians at that time represented more than 12 percent of the country's population, but following independence, as many as 800,000 Christian settlers were evacuated to France; 200,000 decided to stay in Algeria.

Over time, with mounting restrictions that later turned violent, the percentage of Christians in Algeria decreased to just one percent of the population.

Targeting Christians

With Islamists gaining a foothold in Algeria, and Salafi trends becoming prevalent in the country, not only were Christians’ properties under threat, but their lives were too: members of the Christian clergy began to be targeted by extremists.

In 1962, the Oran massacre took the lives of 95 people, most of whom were of European origin. In 1996, seven Tibhirine monks were kidnapped in Algeria and murdered by the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé, GIA). The same year saw an explosion that targeted the car of the Bishop of Oran, Pierre Claverie, killing both him and his driver instantly.

It was not Islamic fundamentalism alone that targeted Christians in Algeria; the state itself, through its various regimes, played an unmistakable role in stifling and restricting them.

According to the 2018 report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Christians in Algeria were subjected to state repression that resulted in the closure of more than a dozen churches in 2017, with more closures continuing the following year. To date, these churches have not been reopened, and in June, the commission recommended that Algeria be placed on the State Department’s watch list.

These successive blows have been primarily directed at the Protestant denomination of Christianity, which some believe is due to the fact that—unlike the Catholic Church, which enjoys strong protection from Europe—the Protestant Church has no backing.

A problem with proselytism

For their part, the biggest justification the Algerian authorities offered for closing churches is to prevent the proselytism and evangelization it accuses these churches of carrying out.

In speaking with the Algerian newspaper ElChorouk El Yawmi in October 2019, the governor of Tizi Ouzou said he had decided to close a church following a citizen's complaints over its suspicious activity. Some reports indicate that as of 2015, the number of Algerians who converted to Christianity exceeded 380,000, most of them from the Kabylia region.

In 2019, Sarah Leah Whitson, then the director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch, commented on the closure in an official statement:

Algerian authorities should allow religious minorities the same freedom to practice their faith as the Muslim majority. All churches that have been shut arbitrarily should be allowed to reopen.

The Algerian Minister of Religious Affairs, Mohamed Issa, has denied accusations that his country is persecuting minorities. He stated that the buildings that were closed were originally educational institutions, houses, or shops with legally authorized activities, but had been turned into places of worship without proper authorization.

Concealing Christian identity

One young Algerian Christian, who requested anonymity, told Raseef22, “I’ve faced many obstacles. It is very hard to tell people in Algeria that I am a Christian.”

He explained that the experience of Christians in the country varies according to region: “The more the region is inhabited by those who do not accept any differences or dissimilarities in their surroundings, the greater the danger and the threat.” Having lived in four different provinces, he could attest that the capital was by far the best in terms of acceptance and religious tolerance. As for living in one of Algeria’s inner cities, he remembers it as a bitter experience: “I was threatened, and unknown individuals demanded that I convert to Islam to ensure my own safety […] it was a terrible experience for me.”

Commenting on the circumstances of Christians, Cairo-based Algerian researcher Aziza Saadoun told Raseef22:

The depth of the crisis is tied to the Algerian character and identity, which—to a large extent—does not know the culture of diversity or difference, and it is difficult for it to accept the other.

She added that the growth of Islamic fundamentalist movements and the state’s view of Christian churches as operatives, have together contributed to the creation of this Algerian identity—the result of which has been the marginalization of minorities and the denial of even the most basic rights.

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