Lawyer: Jail Christian converts

2008-05-27 21:24

Tiaret - An Algerian prosecutor called on Tuesday for two-year jail sentences and fines of 500 000 dinars (about R62 000) for six Christian converts in the mainly Muslim north African country.

The six youths are accused of practising a non-Muslim religion without official permission, subject to a law passed in February 2006 requiring non-Muslim congregations to seek permits from regional authorities.

The change in the law - Algeria formerly guaranteed freedom of religious expression, with around one million Catholics in the country prior to independence from France in 1962 - requires both the place of worship and the preacher to be registered.

The court in the southwestern town of Tiaret also heard a separate case in which a 37-year-old female convert, Habiba Kouider, is charged with preaching a non-Muslim religion without official permission.

Kouider was arrested in a minibus with 25 bibles, according to the ministry for religious affairs. According to the head of the country's Protestant congregation, Mustapha Krim, she was carrying 12 bibles.

"Sad" and "shocking"

In the second case, the prosecutor had sought a three-year prison sentence, but the trial was adjourned on Tuesday to allow the court to receive additional submissions, with an investigating magistrate taking up the case.

French human rights secretary Rama Yade termed the Kouider case "sad" and "shocking" in a Sunday radio interview in Paris.

"Conforming to Algeria's tradition of hospitality, I believe it would be right if (Kouider) is shown clemency," Yade added.

Algeria has over recent months begun cracking down on Christian recruitment, with the minister for religious affairs Bouabdellah Gholamallah accusing Christians of aiming for "overseas interference" in internal affairs.

Islamic leaders have specifically accused Protestant Evangelists of attempting to convert members of Algeria's Muslim majority to Christianity.

Freedom of conscience

As many as 25 places of worship used by Christians have been closed down, although it is not clear how many centres applied for the required permits following the law change.

The Protestant Church claims to have 50 000 followers, 10 000 of them active churchgoers, spread across 33 congregations.

The ministry for religious affairs, however, says there are only 11 000 Christians in Algeria - most of them Catholic - among an overwhelmingly Muslim population of some 33 million.

Press coverage of the Kouider trial has centred on freedom of conscience, guaranteed under the Algerian constitution, but under threat from militant Islamists in the previously secular state.

The independent daily Le Soir talked of an "inquisition". Another non-aligned title, Liberty, said Kouider and the others are "victims of a lynching climate and the growing influence of conservative (hardline) Islamists, who want to make an example of them."