Compass Direct News said the ruling by a court at Ain El-Turck, also known as Ain Turk, 267 miles (430 kilometers) from the capital Algiers, was apparently due to shaky evidence against the three Christians. There was no immediate reaction from Algerian officials.
Prosecutors demanded that the three Christians, identified as Youssef Ourahmane, Rachid Seghir and Hamid Ramdani, would be sentenced to "three years of prison and a fine of 500 euros ($630) on charges of ‘insulting Islam, its prophet and threatening” a former professing Christian that complained against them.
Earlier, a lower court reportedly already agreed with the punishment, but the accused Christians were apparently not present at the time of the ruling "The defendants then appealed the decision of the lower court on July 15, 2008. The appeal court postponed the hearing until October 21, 2008," religious rights group International Christian Concern told BosNewsLife last week.
Taking the stand last week, the three defendants were reportedly asked whether they had blasphemed Muhammad and threatened Shamouma Al-Aid, the convert and plaintiff. Al-Aid had professed Christianity from July 2004 through July 2006, when he attended a church near the town of Oran where he apparently met the Christians, against whom he later filed the blasphemy complaint.
Wednesday’s acquittal came at a time when Algeria has come under international pressure to halt a recent government crackdown against evangelical Christians. Algerian courts have handed several suspended sentences to local evangelicals in the last year under a recent presidential decree that prohibits proselytizing Muslims.
Among those being targeted this year was a Christian evangelist, Rachid Muhammad Essaghir, on charges related to "attempting to shake the Muslim faith," after allegedly receiving death threats.
Essaghir, whose last name has also been spelled as Seghir, has said he is currently targeted for his work with Christians and for posting his telephone number on evangelistic Christian satellite television programs. He also claimed that he received death threats from Algerian journalist Haitham Rabani, who tracks Christianity in the country.
However, "We had noticed the last four or five months the government is trying to back down a little bit," defendant Ourahmane said in published remarks. "I think the pressure on them has been strong, such as condemnations from the US and foreign ministries from France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Spain. This pressure from outside has embarrassed the Algerian government very much."
The international community has been vocal about the Algerian government’s stance toward Christians. On June 6, some 30 US congressmen sent a letter to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika expressing concerns about reports of human rights violations resulting from Ordinance 06-03, which has resulted in the closures of churches and criminal charges against Christians.
Algeria’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but loose terminology in its penal code – such as Article 144, which calls for up to five years of prison for “anyone who offends the Prophet and denigrates the tenets of Islam” – has allowed judges to give Islamic practice the force of law.
Last month, six men in Biskra, 420 kilometers (260 miles) south of Algiers, were sentenced to four years of prison for eating in public before sunset during the month of Ramadan, Algerian media reported. Muslims are required to abstain from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset during this 30-day period.
Commentators criticized the decision saying religious rights were eroding in Algeria.